DEVENS - Dona Neely, director of the Devens Eco-Efficiency Center, loves a good challenge.
Neely leads "The Great Exchange" - where the ongoing goal is to re-purpose volume and bulk items that otherwise would be heading into a landfill. But this Christmas season, Neely received a call from Ayer-Shirley Lions Club President Jennifer Cordio.
"The head of the Lions rang me and said 'I have a challenge for you," said Neely.
"She spoke to our club about a year ago," said Cordio. "Then I was at a zone meeting for the Lions. A couple of different clubs talked about 'What do we do with all these eyeglass cases?"
The Lions Clubs collect gently used eyeglasses, which are then reconditioned and shipped around the world to people in need. "But we end up with all these cases that we just throw out, or hold onto with no good use in mind," said Cordio. "So we figured we'd give Dona a call and gave her the challenge to see if she could find a way to reuse some of these eyeglass cases."
"She really came through," said Cordio.
"She asked if I had any ideas on repurposing the cases," said Neely. "Not to be trumped," Neely recalled putting on her thinking cap and Googling for uses for used eyeglass cases.
"I learned about a group that had used them to become first aid kits for the homeless," said Neely. "I rang her (Cordio) back and she said that sounds like a wonderful idea."
Neely then located a local group that provides services to the homeless - Fitchburg-based ACTION (Accessible Comprehensive Treatment In Our Neighborhoods) Health Services.
"They have a mobile unit where folks go out in their van or on foot to provide healthcare services to the homeless in the Fitchburg and Gardner area," said Neely. The timing worked out well, because ACTION was preparing to host its annual Dec. 21 luncheon for their clientele.
"It's a tradition for organizations that provide services to homeless to have a special luncheon on Dec 21 because it's the winter solstice which is the longest night of the year, greatly impacting the homeless during the winter," said Neely.
More than 100 homeless individuals were expected for the Fitchburg luncheon. The kits would be handed out then, it was decided. Work began to gather needed supplies.
"It was so rewarding," said Neely of the many boxes of supplies collected from Devens and area businesses. "So many times I became teary-eyed. There were 640 bars of soap!"
"For a lot of it, we were fortunate on the timing," said Neely. "For example, Springhill Suites [at Devens Common] was looking to repurpose a large inventory of supplies. They donated a lot. I guess it's the season."
"In some cases, it was things you need when you travel - soaps and shampoos. I have a lot of those," said Neely. But Neely was pleasantly surprised by the response from several Devens businesses. When asking to give what they could, "for at least half of them, you could tell people went out and bought supplies for this initiative. It was a wonderful thing."
Laddawn Industries makes plastic bags in all shapes and sizes. The Devens-based company donated 500 re-sealable, heavy-duty, gallon-sized bags for the toiletry items.
"These bags are really sturdy," said Neely. "They're reusable and packable."
Also, the Lions provided 80 eyeglass cases that were redesigned into first aid kits. "We were really creative with what went inside of them," said Neely. "It couldn't be too thick.
Safety Source Northeast donated "a box full of stuff including the antacids and dehydration packets and bandages." Other larger donations, like burn blankets, were turned over to the ACTION mobile unit for emergency field uses.
Other significant donors include Sunny Delight Beverages Company of Littleton, which donated 800 assorted size bandages. Fidelity Bank donated 200 eye glass wipes. Employees from Devens-based AMSC and Comrex Corporation generously contributed hundreds of toiletry items.
"In the end we ended up making 125 bags of hygiene supplies including soap, shampoo and hand sanitizer - and we made 80 of the first aid kits," said Neely. "We also provided four boxes of related supplies because we had excess of some items. Whatever stuff we couldn't include in assortments we passed along so they could make them available to their clientele at a later date."
Seven volunteers rallied with Neely to assemble the kits. Loaded into the first aid kits were bandages, individually wrapped gauze pads, antibiotic ointment packets and wipes, aspirin packets, trial-size hand sanitizers, handi-wipes, mini scissors, tweezers and sewing kits. Toiletry bags contained travel size toothpaste, toothbrush, soap, shampoo and other health and beauty aid items.
Stacey Auger is the Associate Director of ACTION Health Services, a not-for-profit health care organization based out of Fitchburg which provides access to medical, dental, and behavioral health care in locations throughout North Central Massachusetts. Auger said her group serves "the needs of our region's most vulnerable" population, particularly homeless children and adults, those at risk for homelessness, and those receiving housing assistance.
Auger was wowed by the teamwork of the Lions, the Eco Efficiency Center and the many participating local businesses. "This partnership is excellent and we are grateful for the overwhelming support and generosity of all those who donated," said Auger. "Because of this generosity we were able to offer needed first aid kits and personal care items as part of our first annual Homeless Persons Memorial Day commemoration" on Dec. 21.
"In spite of the torrential downpours which persisted throughout the morning and early afternoon the event was attended by approximately 40 adults," said Auger. "We were expecting more to attend but considering how terrible the weather was we were very pleased with the turnout. "
"Following a service by Pastor Jeff Conlon of Faith United Parish which included a deeply moving candle lighting ceremony for those who had passed away and for those we were concerned about, we provided a hot meal of spaghetti and meatballs, salad, mixed vegetables, fruit, and desserts," said Auger. "As the meal was finishing we 'unveiled' our various take-away items which included cold weather gear, non-perishable food bags, personal care bags, and first aid kits."
The kits were a success. "All items were graciously received but it was honestly the personal care bags and first aid kits that were the biggest hits!" said Auger. "Our guests commented on how needed and hard to obtain these personal care items were and how innovative and appreciated the first aid kits were."
"I cannot begin to put into words how grateful we are for the many people who support our program and this event," said Auger. "We are incredibly fortunate to have partners and friends like those who participated and truly could not do our work without it!"
ACTION's patients have needs that extend far beyond clinical services. The center is always seeking donations to support patients' well-being. Presently, ACTION is seeking donations of new and gently used winter jackets and boots, high-protein and nutritive non-perishable food items (tuna fish, beef stew, peanut butter, oatmeal, canned fruit, canned vegetables), and toiletry items (toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap, toilet paper). For more information about ACTION Health Services or how to make a donation, contact Auger at (978) 878-8523 or firstname.lastname@example.org
The Ayer-Shirley Lions Club accepts donations of used eyeglasses year-round. There are Lions drop boxes at Ayer Optical, Nashoba Valley Regional Medical Center, North Middlesex Savings Bank branch offices, the Shirley Senior Center, and there's a drive-up box located aside the Ayer Post Office on Central Avenue. More information about the Ayer-Shirley Lions is available at http://www.e-clubhouse.org/sites/ayershirleyma and fans can 'Like' the club on facebook.com at Ayer Shirley Lions Club.
And The Great Exchange is up and running, accepting reusable materials and providing those materials for groups and organizations. More information is available at http://www.ecostardevens.com.
Follow Mary Arata at twitter.com/maryearata.