By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
INDEPENDENCE — If life were a fairy tale and Paul Wilson had three wishes, this is what he would ask for, in order:
• A few good Catholic men with business savvy to serve as a board of directions, and who know how to raise money not only to pay the shipping costs for the medical equipment, but to provide a permanent, stable source of funding for the Franciscan Mission Warehouse.
• Volunteers. Lots of them. Even volunteers who don’t know a syringe from an IV pole, but can learn how to sort and perhaps even pack the equipment and supplies for shipment. They can be school groups, youth groups, adults, individuals, anybody. You got the will, Wilson will teach you the way. And he’d like a volunteer coordinator to line up both the volunteers and the work.
• A grant writer, volunteer or otherwise if the money comes in. Wilson knows that there are charitable foundations out there willing and ready to join the Sisters of St. Francis in their mission to save lives all over the world. But as the sole employee of Franciscan Mission Warehouse, he lacks both the time and the expertise to identify.
Oh, and one more thing. One more employee and one more truck — again, if the money comes in — who can operate a forklift and knows how to pack a shipping container tighter than a can of sardines. Just like he can.
Wilson brims with the enthusiasm and pride of a grandfather showing off pictures of his grandkids as he guides a tour of the warehouse on the grounds of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Eucharist in northern Independence.
“This isn’t half of it,” he said Oct. 10, as the sisters were about to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the warehouse they built to store and ship life-saving equipment to areas of the world that have, quite literally, nothing.
“We had to rent more space to hold the rest of it,” Wilson said.
He points to hospital beds, each one donated, and each one costing at least $10,000 new. He points to hydraulic gurneys, $8,000 brand new.
“I got those from a hospital in Des Moines that was scaling down because of budget cuts,” he said.
“Over here is an OR (operating room) table. It’s got all the attachments,” he said.
And he’s got IV poles — dozens of them. And syringes. 58,000 of them “brand new and in their original boxes,” still sitting on four pallets in the middle of the warehouse where they came in just a few days earlier.
“We got those from the Kansas City, Kan., Community College School of Nursing,” Wilson said.
So why would the KCKCC School of Nursing donate them?
“That’s their business,” Wilson said. “I just go get ‘em.”
Wilson does know why he gets most of the stuff in his warehouse, ranging from crutches and wheelchairs to some pretty sophisticated computer and diagnostic equipment.
Hospitals in the United States are constantly upgrading their equipment and technology is advancing so fast that yesterday’s state of the art is today’s obsolete.
But only in the United States. In countries where even hospital beds are hard to get, yesterday’s technology beats nothing at all by a wide margin.
But not all of it can work where the Franciscan Mission Warehouse wants to send it, as any person who has travelled outside the United States knows full well.
Electricity in much of the world isn’t like electricity in the United States. Things that run on U.S. electrical juice won’t always run on foreign electrical systems.
That’s when Wilson turns into a finageler, making deals with other charities in the United States.
He pointed to two X-ray machines.
“Those won’t work where we ship,” Wilson said. “But I found a charity in Illiinois that ships to Panama. They will work there, and he’s going to bring me something I need. So I work swaps like that.”
That’s how it works sometimes.
“There are a lot of places to get things, but it’s not stuff I need. It is stuff that someone else needs, and we can trade. That ups the quality of our shipping. I am able to find things I need that way,” he said.
It also works locally.
Wilson said he had a supply of motorized hospital beds. The demand in Africa, the Philippines, Siberia, the Ukraine and other places the Franciscan Mission Warehouse ships to is for mechanical beds that don’t need to be plugged in.
Then he learned of a nursing home in the Kansas City area that had mechanical beds. He arranged a swap for the electric beds in the warehouse, and he was glad to deliver.
“One of the nurses came up to me, hugged me and said, ‘You don’t know how much work you are saving us,’” he said.
That’s the reason he’s doing this, Wilson said.
But while the supplies are free, it costs the Franciscan Mission Warehouse an average of $10,000 to ship each load.
The Sisters of St. Francis launched the warehouse on the “lilies of the field” principle. God will provide the money.
Wilson admitted that his faith isn’t quite that strong. He also admitted to lying awake many nights wondering if the Franciscan Mission Warehouse was going to make it through the next week.
“That’s when the devil is talking to me,” he said.
“Then I talk to God. I say the ‘Our Father,’ just like he taught us,” Wilson said, pointing to a large tapestry of Jesus that adorns the front entrance of the warehouse.
“I put that up to remind me who I’m really working for,” he said.
Wilson recalls the day, four years ago, when both the supply of medical equipment and supplies coming and the demand going out was too much for the Sisters of St. Francis to handle without help, and they asked him to take the job supervising the warehouse.
“I said, ‘Don’t you want to interview me first?’” Wilson said.
He said he had been volunteering for a few years, shortly after his retirement, and even though the job consumes him, he’s glad he’s got it.
“I’m retired and I was going downhill,” he said. “Look at me now. I’m in great shape. I’ve lost 35 pounds.”
And the strangest things happen.
Joe Ross, sales manager of Custom Truck and Equipment, donated a truck that Wilson said he would be hard-pressed to do without.
A doctor in Oklahoma City, originally from Togo, heard of the warehouse. Then he arranged a shipment to his native country, paid for by a charity in Oklahoma City. Win-win-win.
Just like the time a Baptist Church in Illinois paid half the costs for a shipment to Mali.
“Here we are, a Catholic charity shipping to help people who are Muslims, and half the costs were paid by Baptists,” Wilson said.
Those are the moments he lives for. And when he starts to feeling too overwhelmed and depressed, he stops by the corkboard, next to the tapestry of Jesus, and reads a letter he already has memorized.
It came from the Sister Servants of Mary, who operate a clinic in Cameroon that received a shipment from the Franciscan Mission Warehouse.
“Encountering people like you,” the sisters wrote in strong but imperfect English, “how can we say that he (God) does not exist?”
“I’m at the age where money doesn’t mean a lot,” Wilson said.
But he can’t help dreaming of how much more good that he and the warehouse could do if only the resources were there. He knows the need has barely been scratched.
“Money and people to help,” he said.
“We’ve done eight shipments this year on our own, and assisted in two others,” Wilson said. “We could do 20-25 a year. I know we could do two shipments a month if we had the money and the help.”
More information about the Franciscan Mission Warehouse and its work to provide medical equipment and supplies to poorly served areas around the world can be found online at www.franciscanmissionwarehouse.org.