Usually, one might expect to find loads of medical supplies like gauze, gloves and test tubes exclusively in hospitals. But on the most recent Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, these items covered tables in a room at The Riverdale Y, waiting for dozens of volunteers to sort and package them.
“What we were doing was actually sorting those items, separating them to put them in like categories with each other,” said Rabbi Joseph Robinson, The Y’s community engagement director. “We sorted and packaged around 2,000 pounds of medical supplies.”
This event was a part of The Riverdale Y’s MLK Day of Service, where volunteers from the neighborhood are invited to assist with community service projects. For sorting and packaging the donated medical supplies, The Y partnered with Afya Foundation — a Yonkers-based organization that’s been doing this work since 2007.
Afya’s mission is to recover unused medical supplies through donations from hospitals and other medical providers, and then redistribute those supplies to under-resourced communities in the United States and abroad, according to founder and chief executive Danielle Butin. The foundation has donated medical supplies to sites in more than 80 countries.
Afya often gets surplus medical supplies from hospitals that are changing their inventories, Butin said. For example, if a hospital contracts with a new gauze provider, they then can’t use any of the surplus gauze from the previous vendor because that could lead to medical errors.
Hospitals also can’t use equipment in surgery packs once they’ve been opened, Butin said, even if certain materials never came out of their sterile packaging. As a result, hospitals end up with large amounts of perfectly good medical supplies that they can no longer use, but can be donated to organizations like Afya.
When the coronavirus pandemic struck the United States in March, Afya quickly shifted its focus to providing personal protective equipment to many local hospitals — like Montefiore — that had supported them with donations of surplus medical supplies for years.
“We were getting SOS pleas from everyone — from major hospital systems, to community agencies,” Butin said. “In the beginning, we really were focusing on trying to help protect the biggest hospitals.”
Once the major institutions sorted out their supply chain issues, Afya shifted its focus to supporting local federally qualified health centers and community organizations with personal protective equipment and other medical supplies. Butin said 33 of these recipients are located in the Bronx — including The Riverdale Y and the Mosholu Montefiore Community Center.
“They would ask us for very specific supplies,” Butin said. “They would say, ‘We need KN95 masks, we need gloves, we need’ whatever it was that they needed. And we would deliver it.”
Afya was ready to donate personal protective equipment once the pandemic struck, Butin said, because it had a surplus in its Yonkers warehouse. That included an abundance of surgical masks from all of the surgical packs that had been donated to the foundation over the years.
In order to keep up with demand for personal protective equipment in under-resourced communities, Afya bought additional equipment — the first time it ever had to purchase supplies for donations.
Some of those health centers receiving personal protective equipment from Afya would not have stayed open without the donations. Butin knows, because they said as much to her.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, Afya often would partner with neighborhood organizations, like they did with The Riverdale Y on Martin Luther King Day. This was the third year The Y partnered with Afya, Robinson said, and volunteers take the sorting and packaging of medical supplies very seriously.
“We had this wonderful woman who sorted over 400 test tubes, checking for expiration dates and usability,” Robinson said. “So she had a giant bag and just went to town on it individually. And she stayed longer than her shift was originally intended. But she was dedicated to it.”
The Hebrew Home at Riverdale was another regular off-site sorting partner for Afya before the pandemic, Butin said. Hebrew Home residents who felt they couldn’t make a difference in the outside world found purpose sorting and packaging medical supplies.
“There was one older woman who, I’ll never forget this, she said, ‘I wish I could do this every day. Because I feel like my life means something when I’m doing this,’” Butin said.
Afya would send occupational therapy students to assist residents in wheelchairs or who had other dexterity issues in the sorting and packaging process — said Josephine Catalano, Hebrew Home’s volunteer services and intergenerational programming director.
“On any given day, we would have up to 16 residents sitting around a large U-shaped table sorting and counting,” Catalano said. “And interacting not only with the students, but also with the volunteers.”
However, the pandemic has made it impossible for the Hebrew Home to participate, Catalano said. But such efforts haven’t been forgotten — residents often ask when they’ll be able to sort medical supplies again.
Soon, Butin said. When this pandemic is over. And when that happens, volunteers will be welcomed back to its Yonkers warehouse, too.
Said Butin: “That’s something we’re definitely going to return to once this is over.”