Wheelchairs, walkers, hospital beds, commodes. For a person struggling to navigate the complicated network of medical bureaucracy, this necessary equipment can cost a hefty sum.
In its first year as a nonprofit medical supplies organization, the Convalescent Aid Society loaned out 14 free wheelchairs to those in need. That was 100 years ago. Today, they have a revolving inventory of over 30,000 units per year.
Convalescent Aid Society provides health care equipment services free to residents of the San Gabriel and San Fernando Valleys. Having recently expanded to Burbank, CAS is the only organization of their kind in the greater Los Angeles area.
“In this world of a medical system that is somewhat convoluted, and oftentimes hard to navigate, we are the easiest step in the process,” CAS Executive Director Mark Waterson told the Leader.
CAS was born when eight women — wives of surgeons at Huntington Hospital — recognized the need for free medical equipment such as wheelchairs in the San Gabriel community. They got the clever idea to start a thrift store, use the proceeds to purchase wheelchairs, and loan them out at no cost to Pasadena-area patients in need.
The unique operation turns 100 this year, a milestone marked by decades of consistent service to the people of the San Gabriel Valley out of its Pasadena location, and more recently the San Fernando Valley, and its mission is no different than the day it was born.
CAS has always worked to meet the needs of the day, Waterson said. During the Great Depression, CAS offered interest-free micro-loans to residents.
“I’ve got this copy of a receipt that we gave someone,” Waterson said. “They just needed $15 and used that money to can and jar preserves for sale, which is just very cool.”
In the 1950s, CAS shifted to offering scholarships to students going into nursing programs as a way to support people who were interested in entering the health care world.
In the 1960s, CAS offered temporary child care services to assist families when one or more parents were medically indisposed.
In the 1990s, a grateful client of CAS bequeathed the nonprofit a hefty sum of money, and the organization was finally able to stop relying on funds generated by their thrift store. Since then, CAS has been entirely funded by the local community.
“We subsist on individual donors, primarily people or their families who have experienced our system and have gotten the benefit of our free equipment which has allowed them to go on and lead independent lives,” Waterson said.
“We are so thankful that we exist in such an amazingly philanthropic community. For an agency that’s been around as long as we have to exist off of many $15 and $20 donations, we take that to heart,” he added.
More recently, CAS has expanded into the San Fernando Valley, setting up a site in Burbank, its first real expansion and one that Waterson says will allow the organization to satisfy an even greater demand for its services.
“There’s a whole community of people in that valley who don’t have access to a CAS-like service. If you think about that valley, there are actually more people that live there. There are more hospitals, there are more hospital discharges, there are more people in senior demographics that potentially need our services,” said Waterson.
“The idea that after 100 years, we’re finally making our first real expansion just gets us excited about future frontiers. This is likely to be the first expansion of many,” he added.
Occupying a nondescript, squat tan building on the corner of Magnolia Boulevard and Mariposa Street, CAS has wide access handicapped entrances and a clean, comfortable waiting area for those signing up for services, picking up or dropping off equipment.
It’s a no-frills operation, the staff says, but one they know meets the need.
“It’s incredibly easy to come to Convalescent Aid Society and leave with what you need,” Waterson told the Leader.
“We have an online application. It takes five minutes. You schedule a pickup time, pull up behind our building, we bring the equipment out to your car, and in a couple of minutes, you’re on your way and back to doing whatever else you need to do,” Waterson said.
“We allow people to maintain a sense of dignity, and independence that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to. They get access to the right equipment that they may not have otherwise been able to obtain. The end results are physical, mental and spiritual improvements for the patients,” he added.
Waterson told the Leader that CAS is excited to hold a Centennial Celebration in honor of the organization’s 100th year.
For the past nine years, CAS has held an annual Garden Party in October.
“This year, the 10th annual Garden Party will evolve into the Centennial Celebration. We will honor the founders of the Convalescent Aid Society and acknowledge individuals that have continued to guide and support CAS through the years,” their website states.
The fundraising event will be held at Castle Green in Pasadena, the site of CAS’ very first location back in 1923.
“We’re going back to the scene of the crime,” Waterson joked.
The event will host a raffle drawing, upscale dining, wine and drinks and an open bar. Attendees will adjourn to the Castle Green ballroom for a “program of amazement and wonder as well as cake and champagne,” the site states.
The Centennial Celebration is set for Sunday, Oct. 29 at 4 p.m. Tickets will be available at casgardenparty.com/ website.
First published in the September 9 print issue of the Burbank Leader.