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Updated: February 10, 2020 On the record

Elizabeth McLellan is bringing hospitals’ ‘golden trash’ to countries in need

Photo / Jim Neuger Elizabeth McLellan, president and founder of Partners for World Health, at the organization’s warehouse on Walch Drive in Portland. Partners aims to ship 24 containers of medical supplies and equipment to developing countries this year.

Elizabeth McLellan is the president and founder of Partners for World Health, a Portland-based nonprofit that collects and distributes medical supplies and equipment to developing countries. It also organizes medical missions.

At the group’s headquarters in a leased warehouse building it hopes to buy, McLellan spoke with Mainebiz about its mission and goals.

Mainebiz: What inspired Partners for World Health?

Elizabeth McLellan: When I lived in Saudi Arabia many years ago, I visited a hospital in northern Pakistan where this physician came out in a dirty bloody gown in a room with about 50 patients about two feet apart. He would take the dressings down with his hands, and then re-tape it with the same gauze because he didn’t have enough supplies. I’m standing there watching this whole scenario saying to myself, “This is incredible. We have so much in the United States and we’re throwing so much of it away, and they don’t even have enough gauze or tape to put a clean dressing on.” It was around that moment where I thought, some day when I go home, I’m going to do something about this. In 2007 when I was in nursing administration at Maine Med, I started collecting all the stuff that was left behind in discharged rooms. In September 2009 when I had over 11,000 medical supplies stored at home, we moved to our first warehouse.

MB: How would you describe your mission?

EM: Our mission is threefold. No. 1, we save the environment — we collect all this stuff [donated equipment and supplies] and bring it into our warehouses, where we weigh it and keep track of all the weight. The second part of our mission is lowering health care costs. If a facility donates 50,000 or 100,000 pounds, that’s 100,000 pounds they don’t have to pay to get rid of, so they can save on disposal fees. And we do the right thing because we organize it, we pay for the containers and we give it to people that are less fortunate.

MB: What is the greatest need for?

EM: When we get a list, they’re asking for everything — bandages, operating room tables, EKG machines, dialysis machines. Those are the huge needs.

MB: You now have a staff of close to 10, about 800 volunteers and two warehouses in Portland. Did you ever envision becoming this big?

EM: I never had a plan, I just knew that I couldn’t stand the fact that we were throwing all these supplies away, and people are lacking medical supplies all over the world. It’s not fair and begs the question: Is health care a right, or is health care a privilege?

MB: As you get bigger, do you run it like a business or a nonprofit?

EM: We are a nonprofit, but you have to run a nonprofit like a business. We have a big annual appeal and write for small grant funding, but a lot of our income is generated through innovative business strategies.

MB: Can you give an example?

EM: We charge processing fees for our containers — because I have to pay the electric bill, and the rents, and on and on. We want to buy this building, so we are trying to figure out a capital campaign to buy it because I don’t want to move again. Our facilities budget alone is about $180,000 a year, and our budget this coming year will be about $650,000, which includes employees and real estate and other expenses.

MB: Are you confident of being able to raise $2.5 million to buy this building?

EM: “No” is not part of my vocabulary!

MB: Can you ever envision expanding beyond this region?

EM: It actually should be everywhere in our country. We’re the only one in New England that does this, so people are finding out about us and saying, “We want a recycling program, can you come and help us set it up?” We go down and we figure out how to work with them, and talk to them about the pickups. We have our own truck and a van, so we do the pickups for free. We want to take their trash away because it’s golden trash for us.

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