Joan and Segundo Velasquez founded Mano a Mano in 1994 with the goal of saving surplus medical supplies from the landfill in Minnesota and shipping them to Bolivia, where those supplies were desperately needed.
Joan served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Bolivia. Segundo was born there, and moved to Minnesota as an adult. His brother Jose, a pediatrician working in Bolivia, asked Segundo to bring medical supplies back home whenever he came to visit. Over the years, the amount of supplies grew from a few items in a suitcase to multiple shipping containers each year.
Twenty-seven years after it began, Mano a Mano (925 Pierce Butler Route in St. Paul) is a well-established nonprofit organization that has built more than 300 infrastructure projects across Bolivia – from clinics and schools to roads and water reservoirs. All of these projects were done in collaboration with local communities, and all of them continue to operate today.
Nate Knatterud-Hubinger has been Mano a Mano’s executive director for the past six years. He said, “The majority of the donated supplies and equipment Mano a Mano receives are shipped to Bolivia. Our core mission is to help communities in Bolivia, but we are happy to partner with local organizations when we have more than we can use. We want to keep medical supplies out of landfills and incinerators in Minnesota, and get them to people who can use them.”
He continued, “Access to medical care is limited in many rural Bolivian communities. Medical supplies and equipment are prohibitively expensive, with non-profit and government-operated health programs often lacking the most basic items. The lack of supplies compromises their ability to care for those with limited resources. Mano a Mano’s medical supply distribution and community clinic programs help address these problems.”
Wednesday is Donation Day
Orthopedic supplies like wheel-chairs, walkers, and crutches are in especially high demand. Mano a Mano staff and volunteers visit the Goodwill Store at Fairview and University avenues in St. Paul every Wednesday afternoon, and cull through the bins looking for these mobility items.
Individuals can also drop off gently used medical supplies and mobility items at Mano a Mano’s office on Wednesdays. There is a well-marked drop off box in the parking lot. Unopened medical gloves, gauze, braces, crutches, and wheelchairs are welcome. Items are stored at their St. Paul warehouse until there is sufficient volume (and funding) to fill a shipping container.
A long voyage
Once filled, each container is trucked from St. Paul to the east coast, and shipped down the eastern seaboard and through the Panama Canal. The sea voyage ends in a harbor in Chile, as Bolivia is a land-locked country. The container is back on a truck to La Paz, Bolivia, where the shipment has to clear customs, before reaching its final destination in Cochabamba, Bolivia. From beginning to end, the voyage takes three to five months.
According to Knatterud-Hubinger, “It costs nearly $25,000 to ship a 40-foot container. Because the commercial value of each container would be at least $300,000-$500,000 on average, the shipments are absolutely worthwhile. But there are some items, like bath chairs and commodes, that are more useful state-side than in rural Bolivia.”
Distributing mobility aids
Last year a physical therapist approached Mano a Mano with an idea. She told staff about her Twin Cities’ patients who either lack health insurance, or whose insurance does not cover equipment needed to live with independence and dignity. For example, a patient who needs a wheelchair might be able to get a wheelchair – but not a commode or a bath chair.
The physical therapist’s question to Mano a Mano was, “Could Twin Cities’ therapists and other health care professionals access Mano a Mano’s surplus medical equipment for their patients?”
Knatterud-Hubinger said, “We embarked on a pilot project. Physical therapists, occupational therapists, and social workers identify their patients with unmet needs. They check with Mano a Mano to see if we have the items needed, and come to our warehouse on a scheduled Saturday morning to pick them up.
“Physical therapist Sharon Kimble shared this story of the difference our pilot project made for one of her patients. Ikran, a 26-year-old recently arrived Ethiopian refugee, had paraplegia. She lived with her family in Minneapolis, where her younger brother assisted with all of her care: carrying her from one place to another in their house, lifting her onto the toilet, and bringing water to her bedside for sponge bathing.”
Kimble located a sliding chair in the Mano a Mano warehouse that could help Ikran become more independent. Once Ikran was lifted onto the sliding chair, she could manage much of her own personal care. Kimble said, “This is an expensive piece of equipment, one that Medical Assistance would never have paid for. The sliding chair transformed the lives of my patient and her family.”
Reaching rural communities can be challenging because of elevation: many of the communities Mano a Mano serves are in the Andes mountains 8,000-14,000’ above sea level. The roads are typically poor, and the weather is unpredictable. Rural communities are often ignored because they are so difficult to access.
The impact of poverty falls hardest on Bolivia’s mothers and children. The maternal mortality rate in Bolivia is among the highest in Latin America.
Knatterud-Hubinger said, “We are always looking for volunteers to help sort medical supplies. It’s very satisfying to see the volume of usable equipment and supplies we divert from landfills and incinerators: materials that are in perfectly good condition, like a prepackaged surgery kit with one item missing. We currently require masks indoors and proof of vaccination for volunteers."
To learn more about giving or receiving donated medical equipment and supplies, visit the Mano a Mano website at www.manoamano.org. Contact operations manager Carmen Paredes Dockry at email@example.com with questions about volunteering or making an in-kind donation.