Two crime stories last year were made all the more heartrending because the criminals did not just take away property they took away individuals’ ability to function. One involved a family whose 9-year-old daughter lost her custom wheelchair when the family van was stolen from a church parking lot. The other involved a custom-made wheelchair that was destroyed in a fire set by burglars.
Both stories have a little-known, behind the scenes hero. Friends of Disabled Adults and Children (FODAC), a Stone Mountain-based non-profit, stepped in and immediately provided suitable wheelchairs, a process that through normal channels could take weeks, even months, and could cost families thousands of dollars. FODAC provides more than $9 million annually in durable medical equipment and supplies at little or no cost to children and adults with disabilities.
While only a few years ago, most middle-class families could depend on insurance for the medical equipment they needed, the picture is changing. Georgia continues to have one of the highest unemployment rates in the country and many families that once were comfortably middle-class are suffering under extreme economic distress. When those families, who are often without adequate insurance coverage, are also dealing with the effects of a disability, they have to look elsewhere for support.
“In the current economy, we’re providing more and more help to middle-class families, where because of lost jobs or discontinuation of insurance benefits, families aren’t able to get vital pieces of medical equipment,” said Chris Brand, president of FODAC. “People dealing with catastrophic health conditions in tough economic times are among the most vulnerable members of our community.”
The co-pay on a custom piece of equipment can be $2,000 to $8,000. “Families today just can’t afford that,” Brand said.
The situation, Brand pointed out, does not just affect families in which a member has a disability. “When someone can’t work because he or she doesn’t have the equipment to move about, the person has to live on government benefits and that impacts all of us as taxpayers,” he said.
FODAC cleans, repairs and refurbishes equipment for persons with disabilities, then makes it available—usually at no cost— to those who need it. “One of the few things we charge for are batteries, which we buy at a discount and sell at cost. We insist that every piece of equipment that leaves here have a good battery so it will keep working as it’s supposed to,” Brand said.
In addition to wheelchairs, FODAC provides walkers, hospital beds, power chairs, scooters, shower seats, lift chairs, bedside commodes, children’s positioning chairs and other equipment. The organization also provides training in equipment use and access modifications to homes and vehicles.
While a person can sometimes get the equipment he or she needs through a government agency, the process usually involves navigating complex paperwork and being placed on a long waiting list. “An accident can cause a person to become disabled in a very short period of time. A person who needs special equipment to function shouldn’t have to wait six months to get it,” said Brand. While the organization was founded to help those at the lowest income levels, FODAC does not require proof of income from its clients.
Because of its huge inventory of equipment, FODAC usually helps almost immediately. “We can take parts from one piece of equipment to modify another until we have what the person needs. Nothing goes to waste. Through recycling everything from parts to batteries to upholstery we keep some 185 tons of waste out of DeKalb County’s landfills,” Brand said.
Started 25 years ago by Stone Mountain resident Ed Butchart, who operated the charity out of his own home, FODAC has become the largest organization of its type in the nation. The organization’s current home is a large facility on Lewis Road in Stone Mountain, which in addition to offices, warehouse space, cleaning, repairing and training facilities, houses a thrift shop where people can find, according to Brand, “some of the best bargains” in the area. “We’re a little off the beaten path, so we have to keep our prices very low.”
As homage to the organization’s founder, who often with little make-up plays Santa Claus, the building has a room called Santa’s workshop where year-round children who come to be fitted for or trained to use special equipment are allowed to go in a pick out a toy before they leave.
At the top of Brand’s wish list this new year is greater awareness of FODAC and all that it does. “When a family or a health care facility has equipment that it no longer needs because the user has outgrown it, recovered or passed away, we want people to think first of donating it to us. We can promise that it will be put to good use,” he said.