WESTMORELAND — The wheelchair was ready to go — Sally Jenna had already cleaned and restored it. She also affixed a tag that identifies it as part of the Shepherd Program. Someone from Cheshire Medical Center had called on behalf of a senior citizen earlier that week: The woman would be ready to go home around mid-day, but she needed a wheelchair.
Then, the nurse from the Keene hospital called again: Could Jenna also lend the lady a tub seat?
Jenna grabbed an almost-brand-new tub seat from the basement of Maplewood Nursing Home, where she stores a fleet of wheelchairs and walkers alongside a stack of tub seats and a bundle of crutches. All of them are donated or purchased with donations.
Jenna, who works at the Westmoreland nursing home, maintains the equipment, and she keeps a rough inventory in her head. There’s a master list of equipment somewhere, but inventory changes week to week.
“It goes in trends,” Jenna, a rehab technician, said. “One week or a month it could be (that) everybody needs a wheelchair, and then everybody needs a commode, and then all of a sudden, it’s tub seats.”
Two weeks ago, there was a run on tub seats — about five people said they needed them, but Jenna didn’t have enough. So she used some of the donations she’d received to buy three more.
With the items the woman needed ready to go, Jenna called the hospital back, letting them know the wheelchair and tub seat would come their way soon. Jenna frequently recruits the nursing home’s drivers, who often take residents to medical appointments in Keene. The equipment would come along for the ride.
Sometimes, clients who need walkers, wheelchairs or crutches are home-bound or cannot make the trip to Westmoreland for another reason. Jenna has a solution for that too: She might ask Maplewood’s maintenance staff to drop off the items on their way home. Sometimes, she’ll call the Cheshire County Sherriff’s Office for help — officers travel throughout the county and are always happy to drop off crutches or commodes for people who need them, she said.
That, in a nutshell, is the Shepherd Program: an informal network that connects mobility equipment with people in need. They use it for free for days, weeks or months, and when they’re done, they give it back. And Jenna, 53, coordinates it all. She repairs and restores the donated equipment, in addition to maintaining the nursing home’s stock of wheelchairs, walkers and crutches.
The Chesterfield resident has been running the Shepherd Program for the past nine years, but it existed long before Jenna came to Maplewood. It started in 1998 as a joint project of the Cheshire County Sheriff’s Office and the nursing home, according to Cheshire County Chief Deputy Trevor Croteau.
The idea, which Croteau said was the brainchild of former sheriff Douglass Fish, was the same then as it is now. Fish knew that officers from the sheriff’s office travel all over the county, and they could help mobility equipment find its way to those who need it.
Nowadays, the sheriff’s office is less involved, though staff there still deliver equipment three or four times a year, Croteau said.
In the meantime, the need for the program has only grown, Jenna said.
‘A ray of light’
Over the past decade or so, Jenna has noticed she’s getting more requests for equipment; whereas before she’d get two or three calls per month, in recent years, she’s received 10 or more calls daily, though the volume varies day to day. Most of the equipment — probably 98 percent of it — goes to seniors, she said, though occasionally, it will go to younger adults or children.
“When I come back from vacation, the (Maplewood) receptionist tells me, ‘So glad you’re back,’ because of all the phone calls we get, most of them are for the Shepherd Program,” she said.
The program has grown not only because more people know about it, she explained, but because even with insurance, equipment is expensive, particularly for seniors with limited income.
A basic wheelchair might run anywhere from $150 to $500, she said. Walkers, particularly those with brakes and built-in seats, can cost $150. And crutches can run anywhere from $90 to $130, she added.
At Home Healthcare, Hospice & Community Services in Keene, case workers know and use the Shepherd Program often. The agency works with people who need at-home care in Southwest New Hampshire.
The Shepherd Program “is an invaluable resource to the physical and occupational therapists at (the agency) to obtain equipment for our clients who may otherwise not be able to get the equipment,” physical therapist Tina White wrote in an email. “We contact Sally Jenna directly to coordinate delivery, and she and her staff go above and beyond to provide quick access to the much-needed medical equipment.”
Jenna almost never meets the people she helps, but keeps track of them through the equipment they ask for. Some might start with a walker. Later, as their mobility issues worsen, they may swap it for a wheelchair. And as their sense of balance declines further, they might request a tub seat or a commode. Sometimes, they send her thank-you notes. She keeps a stack of them at her desk.
“It makes me feel good, knowing that I’m helping someone that otherwise wouldn’t be able to (get equipment),” she said. “ … At least I can offer a little bit of sunshine ’cause it’s one thing that they don’t have to worry about — ‘How am I going to get the money to buy a walker?’ ”
A self-taught specialist
A lot of the repairs Jenna makes — replacing a worn seat on a wheelchair or tightening bolts on a walker — are just common sense to her. It’s a skill she honed on the job, but its roots stretch back to her childhood. Growing up in Warwick, Mass., she would help her dad, Ralph Matthews, maintain the family’s Ford. He would ask for a wrench or a screwdriver, and Jenna would hand it to him. Later, when her son, Matthew, learned to ride a bike, Jenna — by then a single mom — would repair and maintain it.
“I didn’t have the extra money to pay somebody to do it, so I just learned to do this stuff,” said Jenna, who also has a daughter, Brittney.
She arrived at Maplewood about a decade ago, after working in the automotive industry. She was an assistant manager at Tire Warehouse, first in Massachusetts, and then in Chesterfield. After she married her husband, Brian Jenna, in 2008, she wanted to switch careers. She started as a housekeeper for a year before moving into her current position.
She said the job suits her not only because it involves making a profound difference in people’s lives, but also because of the community she has created around the program. If something’s too heavy for her to lift or too complicated for her to repair on her own, the maintenance staff is happy to help.
“Everybody here is somehow involved in this whether they know it or not,” she said.