The images were shocking: nurses and doctors in the world’s most prosperous city begging for help as New York’s soaring COVID-19 infections drained their stockpiles of masks, gowns, gloves and other personal protective equipment.
Local 3 members Chris Ormsby, Nelson Nogueira, Willie Mendez and David Moncada in front of stacks of boxes they packed with supplies for New York area medical facilities.
Local 3 journeyman wireman Mike Doyley inside the Afya warehouse. “I’m so grateful that I was able to have this experience,” he said.
The situation put medical workers even more at risk, forcing them to treat multiple patients without changing the sanitary gear that is intended to be used once and discarded.
When New York City Local 3 members in Westchester County heard of a way they could help, they couldn’t jump fast enough.
“It felt like waking up on Christmas morning,” said journeyman wireman and 40-year member Terry Grady, describing the hours he spent sorting and packing PPE at a Yonkers charity in April.
The Afya Foundation, whose names means “health” in Swahili, sends donated PPE and other medical supplies to impoverished hospitals and clinics around the globe. This time it was New York in dire need.
From the beginning, Afya had been scrambling to get its warehouse of supplies to area hospitals. But they were short volunteers. As the virus claimed more lives every day, New Yorkers – especially retirees who regularly pull shifts at the foundation – were sheltering at home.
Union nurses pitched in as much as possible but were spread thin by the demands of desperate hospitals.
Cue the IBEW.
Learning about the warehouse on a labor conference call that included nurses, Westchester-based Local 3 Business Representative Lou Sanchez pledged to round up volunteers.
His members were so eager to help that he had to turn some down. Social distancing, another factor affecting Afya’s backlog, forced the foundation to limit volunteers to about 10 at a time.
“There’s more than one way to save a life,” Sanchez said. “It was a good feeling to know we could make a difference.”
Local 3 crews put their gloved hands to work in the 17,000-square foot warehouse during shifts the third week in April.
“It was like an assembly line,” said journeyman and 20-year member William Mendez. “You take a package out of the box, it could be syringes, you go down the aisles, you look at the number, the number tells you what aisle to go to and how far down the aisles. You look at the code on the outside of the box and that tells you how many of the items go in the box.”
They sorted gowns, booties, shoes, bandages, eye wash, iodine, bags for blood, cotton balls, surgical tape, gauze, and more, including, but in shorter supply, masks and gloves.
“You should have heard the cheering, when somebody opened a box with N95 masks,” Mendez said.
Volunteer coordinator Mary Grace Pagaduan said the Local 3 crews prepared boxes to ship to more than 150 area medical facilities, including hospitals, clinics and nursing homes.
“They were wonderful,” she said. “They worked really hard and they were able to do things fast because they could lift big boxes and move pallets around. It was really, really helpful.”
The donated materials come from hospitals, nursing homes and other facilities — typically items past their expiration date that are in perfect condition.
“We rescue surplus medical supplies that otherwise would have been thrown out in landfills or incinerators,” Pagaduan said, a bounty that’s added up to 11 million pounds of shipments to 84 countries over the past 13 years.
In early 2020, she said Afya was readying boxes for earthquake-ravaged Puerto Rico, as well as Haiti, Tanzania and Malawi. The shipments were rerouted first to Wuhan, China, and then much closer to home.
“We were delivering up to 12 shipments a day to the tri-state area, mostly New York City,” she said.
Afya restarted its global operations recently with a shipment to Haiti, but is also delivering to hotspots around the country, Grace said, adding that the warehouse is now open to anyone interested in volunteering.
The Local 3 teams left an impression that went beyond their strength and efficiency.
“Getting to know the guys, and the fact that they took their own time to come over and help us, it was beautiful,” Pagaduan said. “My staff just loved them.”
It was mutual. Like Grady’s sense of Christmas joy, the volunteers felt blessed to be there.
“They made us feel so comfortable,” said shop steward Mike Doyley, who marks 25 years with Local 3 in August. “I’m so grateful that out of all the people who wanted to volunteer, that I was able to have this experience.
“I’m not one of the workers who was on the front lines. It felt good to be able to get people who are on the front lines the equipment they needed just by offering our time.”
If you’re in the New York City region and are interested in volunteering at Afya, email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.