One Country's Medical Junk Is Another's Treasure

As a prosperous nation with rapidly evolving health care and education systems, America replaces its technology just as quickly.

Some of that equipment, maybe used only once or twice, gets mothballed in attics and storage lockers, only to be rediscovered years later when an inspector mandates, "It's got to go."

Fortunately, people like John Kachelman have appeared to combat this problem.

In July, Baptist Health Medical Center in Little Rock cleared out an entire floor of discarded medical equipment, worth more than $1 million. A convoy of 10 trucks and a 53-foot trailer, led by Kachelman, arrived from Judsonia, loaded up the supplies and took them back to White County. There the equipment was inspected, repaired, categorized and appraised. Then it was shipped to Ukraine.

Kachelman has been involved with sending humanitarian aid to Ukraine and other developing countries since 1999. Kachelman, a minister at the Judsonia Church of Christ, moved to Searcy in the early 2000s and, after the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, expanded his aid to include Sri Lanka.

"Then Tajikistan needed help and a lot of churches wouldn't send to them because they didn't have a mission point over there," Kachelman said. "Now we've shipped to Tajikistan and probably about 25 different foreign countries at this point."

In 2007, Kachelman's nonprofit group, called Life Resources International, was able to acquire a 22,000-SF warehouse in Judsonia for $30,000, paid for by a donation. Since then, more than 200 40-foot, 20,000-pound capacity containers of hospital equipment, school supplies and other items (including, once, a fire truck and ambulance) have been shipped overseas.

Don Eads, who works with Kachelman, said the group was rare among humanitarian donors.

"We're a nonprofit 501(c)(3)," he said. "We're all volunteers, with no paid employees. Most people have administration costs. All we have is utilities and incidentals."

 

Big Shipments

The Life Resources warehouse has filled up to its capacity and emptied out completely several times over its life. A great majority of the items are donated, mostly by hospitals and schools. Donations have come from as far away as Chicago, Memphis and Princeton, Ind., and from as nearby as White County Medical Center in Searcy.

"There are a number of dentists upgrading their equipment," said David Lawyer, a volunteer. "We once went to Mountain Home to get two dental chairs and paraphernalia. We came back with eight dental chairs and all the paraphernalia. They're all gone now."

But the process of getting aid to troubled and often politically turbulent countries is not as simple as loading up a container and sending it along.

"The U.S. government has what they call humanitarian aid transportation assist programs," Kachelman said. "They will help to pay portions of the transportation cost to get the needed commodities into targeted countries. We have to abide by their guidelines."

Those guidelines mean Life Resources carefully inventories items to exclude anything that could be construed as religious, political or military. This means no computers, for example, as Washington worries that they empower military groups. And if any items with passed expiration dates are found, the whole load could be discarded.

Moreover, Life Resources must make sure the container inventories are worth at least $100,000, otherwise the government won't spend the shipping money.

This causes problems when Life Resources needs to supply simple school items like desks and chairs. So in this case, Kachelman said, he sets aside items like burn bandages - a single pallet is worth $85,000 - to bump up the container value.

"We keep a very strict inventory as to what is loaded on there," Kachelman said. "The U.S. government wants to know what they're shipping. And they're paying for it, so they've got the right to know."

Actually, Washington doesn't always pay for the shipments. In the case of a tumultuous country like Somalia, Kachelman's group had to pay $10,000 per container.

Effective communication with the countries has helped Kachelman keep layovers brief, with one notable container packed, shipped and distributed in Haiti within 19 days.

"We usually have a contact in the country," he said. "We work with that contact. They secure for us the duty-free letter."

Kachelman sends a letter with inventory notes to Counterpart International of Washington, D.C., a logistics company that works with the U.S. government.

Soon, Kachelman receives a letter stating when the government's trucks will visit Judsonia, and his group spends a couple of hours loading the containers. Usually, the trucks go to a cargo box terminal in Memphis and are then routed by railroad to port.

Once at their destination, the containers must clear country boundaries.

"The [overseas] government has to give a waiver of tariff," Kachelman said, adding that this isn't always easy. "But in Somalia, who's in charge? You don't know. But somehow they got us a letter."

The efficiency by which Life Resources sends aid has created somewhat of a reputation, Kachelman said.

"When I was in Ukraine last October, I got a phone call from the U.S. Department of Defense," he said. The department told Kachelman it had a container of wheelchairs bound for Ukraine that had been waylaid for at least two years.

Volunteer David Lawyer "took a truck up to Cincinnati and got done in six months what they couldn't do in two years," Kachelman said. "The government has programs for this, but they use faith-based groups like us because the bureaucracy can't get it done."

In addition, when reporting how much aid it sends overseas, the government includes all Life Resources International's inventory value in its reports.

"They get the credit," Kachelman said. "But we don't mind, because they're helping us."