One clinic at a time

Chico nonprofit saves lives around the world

Project S.A.V.E. Director Janet Walker works with a group of volunteers to sort donated medical supplies bound for overseas.

Project S.A.V.E. Director Janet Walker works with a group of volunteers to sort donated medical supplies bound for overseas.

Photo by Emily Teague

Join Project S.A.V.E.:
Log onto for more on their programs and how to volunteer or donate.

Janice Walker paused in front of a plastic bin as she strolled through containers full of medical equipment. She reached inside and pulled out a sealed 14 French catheter. It reminded her of a story, one told by a missionary in Zambia, that exemplifies the reason she does what she does—and why she was in that room full of medical equipment to begin with.

A little girl had fallen into a fire and burned her perineum. The girl’s father, in an attempt to save her life, rode her on his bicycle 15 miles to the closest clinic. But by the time they arrived, the girl’s burn had swollen terribly and a missionary nurse said if she wasn’t catheterized soon, they would lose her. As the nurse went to check the low-stocked shelves, she found exactly one pediatric catheter that ended up saving the girl’s life.

That catheter came from Project S.A.V.E. (Salvage All Valuable Equipment), a nonprofit organization based here in Chico that accepts medical items from public and private donors, compartmentalizes them, and gets them ready for shipment. It was founded in 1996 by Dr. Phyllis Cullen and has been directed by Walker since 2004. Since then, medical supplies have been sent to 43 nations. Earlier this year, a school bus full of items from the organization was sent to Children of the Hogar Guirola orphanage in El Salvador, for example.

“It amazes me that so much has come through the doors of Project S.A.V.E. and we’re just a small organization,” Walker said.

There’s never been a shortage of volunteers, but there’s always a need for more. Tuesday mornings are busy for the team as they go through pallets of boxed supplies that have been dropped off and sift through every individual syringe, package of gauze and stethoscope. At times it may get confusing for those who are not familiar with medical equipment, but Walker is always there to answer questions and direct volunteers to the correct storage bins.

Most of the sealed medical supplies are donated by hospitals and clinics and are usually brand new but have hit or are about to hit an expiration date and will be deemed unusable by U.S. standards.

“Here [in the U.S.], we’re restricted by regulations,” said Susie McCoy, a volunteer with Project S.A.V.E. since 2004. “It doesn’t mean it’s not good anymore, but other countries are not restricted to those regulations and they’re very happy to get the goods even if they’ve expired.”

Once they have enough to fill a sea cargo container, one is brought in to be loaded and then driven back to the dock in Oakland. Currently there are eight 10-by-20-foot units being filled. Some are being assembled to go to Liberia and Nigeria.

Being able to help others in need is the driving force for many of the volunteers at Project S.A.V.E. Janet Peck has been to Sierra Leone eight times and has personally seen the need there for medical supplies and items that may seem ordinary to Americans.

“We have access to items that are life-saving, that in our world are garbage and in their world, it’s huge,” she said. Most people earn about $50 a month and are unable to pay for health care. If they don’t have the money, the supplies, or family to help them after an accident, the probability of death is extremely high, she said.

“Death is such a part of life that we have no concept that if I get in my car, even a low-speed accident, I’m probably going to die if I get anything bigger than a scrape because there’s no access to health care,” she said.

Peck first heard about Project S.A.V.E. when she was preparing to go on a mission trip and needed medical supplies. It seemed like such a great cause that she rearranged her work schedule as a physical therapist at Butte County’s Department of Children’s Services in order to volunteer two mornings a week for the past seven years.

Other volunteers, like Maxine Rodgers, go above and beyond by investing their own money to help overseas. Rodgers has been volunteering at Project S.A.V.E. for more than three years and has put together about 3,500 hygiene kits with items she personally has bought or has had donated. The kits include about 15 products, including toothpaste, shampoo, razors and soap.

As Rodgers, Peck, Walker and about a dozen other volunteers shuffled through the items with the help of an indiustrial heater to beat the cold, Walker looked up to the 16 flags from around the world that hang on top of the busiest storage unit. Walker removed her sunglasses to study them and explained that the flags represent the first nations they ever shipped to.

One of those first units was sent to the Philippines and Walker said she and her husband were amazed at the joy it brought the people.

“We literally saw the hospitals in the Philippines transformed by the things we sent,” Walker said. “It’s an incredible blessing to know that we’re saving [people’s lives].”