How Schoke Jewish Family Service and Wheel It Forward are making a difference.
The story is all too familiar: An elderly person suffers a fall and endures an incapacitating injury. Hospitalization may ensue, sometimes involving surgery. But even in the best case, when there’s just a nasty bruise or a sprain, the return to mobility will probably require durable medical equipment (DME), items often not covered by insurance. Recovery can be an expensive undertaking, especially for a retiree on a fixed income: A basic wheelchair alone starts at around $150 and can make all the difference in the rehabilitation process.
This is just what happened in January to Siegmund “Ziggy” Listwa, a 93-year-old Holocaust survivor living in Stratford, Connecticut. After a fall, Ziggy’s wife, Marlene, reached out to Schoke Jewish Family Service of Fairfield County for help acquiring a wheelchair. Rebekah Kanefsky, director of case management and coordinator of family life education, took the call.
Kanefsky already knew the Listwas from Anachnu, Schoke JFS’s program serving Holocaust survivors throughout Fairfield County. “Mr. Listwa was functionally homebound because he didn’t have the medical equipment he needed to get out of the house,” she recalled. “He and his wife were freaking out because they were scheduled to get their COVID vaccination, and they didn’t know how they were going to keep their appointment.”
Kanefsky knew just where to turn. Three months earlier, Wheel It Forward had opened its doors in Stamford, loaning out DME to those in need for a modest donation. Conceived and founded by Stamford resident Elliot Sloyer, Wheel It Forward solicits donations of lightly used equipment, which is then professionally sanitized and repaired if necessary.
The exchange was quick: Kanefsky contacted Sloyer on January 15 and delivered a wheelchair to the Listwas two days later. “So they did get to their vaccination, and they’re alive and well,” she said.
This is exactly the kind of outcome Sloyer had in mind when he started Wheel It Forward. “I always believed that there was a great idea out there, like a library that didn’t involve books,” said the former Wall Street executive.
In April 2018, Sloyer had his Eureka moment while chaperoning eighth graders from Bi-Cultural Hebrew Academy in Stamford on the school’s annual Israel trip. The group visited Yad Sarah in Jerusalem, the country’s largest national volunteer organization best known for its free lending service of medical and rehabilitative homecare equipment. “I was mesmerized by this concept of a library that involved durable medical equipment, open to anyone in need,” he said.
Back home in Connecticut, Sloyer put together a board of directors and an advisory board and began researching similar community resources. He found a number of lending closets around the country, and learned that Connecticut had been home to several, yet all were now defunct.
In late 2019, Sloyer reached out to Matt Greenberg, CEO of Schoke JFS, who introduced him to Kanefsky and Isrella Knopf, director of senior services. By October 2020, Sloyer had amassed enough know-how and items to start lending and had reached out to hospitals, occupational therapists and physical therapists throughout Fairfield County and neighboring New York communities to let them know about the service. As is the case with many startups, he set up shop in his garage.
Schoke JFS was on board from the start, fielding requests from case management clients like the Listwas and from families of home companion program clients who wanted to donate items after their loved ones had died. Sloyer will refer clients to JFS if appropriate.
Borrowers are asked for a suggested donation, making it “very, very, very affordable,” said Kanefsky. “For some of our clients who don’t have the money for new equipment, they were really stressed out. Wheel It Forward took their stress from a 100 to a 5.”
In addition to saving money, the organization helps save the planet by implementing the Jewish principle of bal tashchit, preventing unnecessary waste. Sloyer estimates that, by reusing equipment, Wheel It Forward has so far kept five tons of metal out of landfills.
The operation also provides an opportunity for gemilut chasadim, acts of lovingkindness. “A wheelchair allows someone to get to their doctor’s appointments, and a hospital bed is safer for a client and their caregivers,” said Knopf. “The people who sadly lost their family members feel like they’re doing a mitzvah by donating these items. It’s wonderful that, in their own time of need, they’re thinking of somebody else to help in their loved one’s honor.”
In April, Sloyer’s garage proved too small and he moved the operation to a local warehouse, where equipment is maintained with the help of a cadre of volunteers—many from Abilis, a local nonprofit that provides support for people with disabilities. His dream is to perfect the model and spread it throughout the country.
If local performance is any indication, Wheel It Forward holds much promise. “I have been in touch with Elliot since he first decided to try this concept,” said Schoke JFS CEO Matt Greenberg. “His passion for making Wheel it Forward has resulted in the creation of an invaluable program for Schoke JFS clients and the community at large. We are extremely grateful to have this resource available, and it has become a vital part of providing assistance to those in need.”
By Cynthia Mindell