As told by founder Dorene Shannon
Tucked away on a side street in Slatington is a small warehouse emblazoned with a simple but powerful image: A globe between two hands and a package being shared between friends. That’s the mission of local nonprofit Through These Hands, founded in 2000 by Dorene Shannon, which collects medical supplies and helps pass them along to developing countries in need.
“I didn’t even know something like this existed,” said Shannon, gesturing around the warehouse’s mile-high shelves, stacked with boxes, wheelchairs, and bedsheets waiting to be shipped to countries all around the world. It looks immense and overwhelming, but Shannon insists that their success came from very small beginnings.
“I’d always had a passion for missions, ever since I was little girl and I’d visit my grandparents on the weekends,” she explained. “My grandfather was a missions pastor; he was like my Jesus representative on Earth, just the kindest man I’d ever met. He’d often have evangelists and missionaries in their home to entertain and I would sit on the floor and just absorb everything they had to say. I was enthralled, soaking it in like a sponge. I never outgrew that passion for missions.”
Shannon started volunteering by age 13 in the children’s department at her church by playing piano or directing bible school. She later became a nurse and it was then that she noticed just how much usable material gets wasted in a medical setting.
In 1999, she switched jobs and started working on a short procedure nurses unit. She and the other nurses were noticing that if patients didn’t take their slipper socks home with them, they had to be thrown away. They weren’t sure what they could do about that until the following year, when Shannon discovered that one of her daughter’s bridesmaids was going on a short missions trip to Kosovo after the wedding.
“I asked her if she thought they could use those little socks and she said they can use anything. So we started taking them home, washing and bleaching them, and in just a few short months, we collected around 500 pairs,” explained Shannon. “It was just supposed to be a random act of kindness, no more, no less, and that was it. But those slippers kept accumulating, so we said, now what?”
Shannon’s father and her husband Bruce’s father were deeply involved in the Salvation Army, so they turned there next ... then senior high-rise apartments ... nursing homes ... doctors heard what they were up to and started giving them supplies, diapers, and sheets. It began evolving before their eyes. A chain of lucky coincidences helped them get everything where it needed to go.
“A friend had a daughter who was a missionary down in Guatemala and knew someone who was starting clinics, so we were able to send her stuff through a warehouse down in Florida,” said Shannon. “I thought I was just helping that along, but suddenly hospital beds and mattresses and stretchers and cribs started appearing. I didn’t recognize that things were happening. It was never something that I had planned, but it all just started to occur.”
Dorene Shannon (above left) preparing for a recent disbursement with Dr. Dale Dangleben (above right) from York, with help from some local volunteers (below). Dangleben was shipping medical supplies to his native country, the island of Dominica which was devastated by Hurricane Erica. He then went there personally to donate his time in aiding in medical relief. Photos provided by Through These Hands.
“If someone had said to me, you’re going to be running this organization, I would’ve said, no, I’m not. That’s not me. I’m not a community organizer, I’m not business-minded. This was just one step of faith at a time.”
Their slow-but-steady progress took them from running out of a sunroom to their garage to a donated two-car garage.
At a group gathering one night, a preacher friend asked her what was new. As she began explaining, she said all the nearby conversations stopped. Someone suggested officially becoming a nonprofit to protect their assets and it started to feel very real.
“Whatever this thing was, it was growing quickly, but I didn’t think too much of it,” she said. “If I ever do think about it, I get overwhelmed. I just look at is as one bag at a time. I unpack, sort it, box it up, and send it out. That I can handle. I can’t take everything at once.”
In 2006, they became incorporated. In 2007, they achieved their nonprofit status. In 2009, they moved into their current location. It had finally become big enough that they needed the space to reflect that. And in 2011, Shannon retired from her nursing job to devote all her time to running Through These Hands, with the help of her husband.
It has gotten bigger than it was ever expected to grow into, however, if there is a ceiling to hit, Shannon feels they may be hitting it. They are the middlemen, collecting and organizing the supplies, but they leave the follow-through to other organizations (hence their name).
“We don’t buy or sell. No money exchanges hands. We survive on contributions. And we can’t give locally, for legal reasons,” she explained.
Their operation is small but mighty, with 23 warehouse volunteers and a handful of others that do what they can to pitch in, and with a powerful reach: Through These Hands has supplied much-needed medical materials to 157 nonprofits distributing throughout 43 countries including Haiti, Kenya, Cuba, Zambia, Sierra Leone, and more.
“It’s wild and wonderful. The only continents we’re not in are Australia and Antarctica,” gushed Shannon. “It’s not so much the numbers that excite me, but the people we touch. We’ve reached so many people who normally wouldn’t have access to this stuff that they need.”
Almost everything is recycled. They throw out very little. They don’t want to give junk, so they only accept what is in very good condition. And absolutely everything is donated.
“It’s mind-boggling,” said Shannon. “People really do have such a big heart, they just want to help. They catch the volunteering bug; it’s contagious. And it makes you feel good to know other people are interested.”
12 area hospitals, various nursing homes, and private individuals provide most of their stock, and they all learned about Through These Hands purely through word of mouth. The organization has never once advertised their mission.
They look to fill specific needs, but being flooded with inventory has introduced a bit of a learning curve, forcing them to think outside the box in terms of what can be used and how. Shannon said it’s important to realize that how we use something here may not be how they use something there.
“It just makes you feel good to know you’re helping people, people you’ll never meet in your lifetime, but you’re helping human beings,” said Shannon. “I sleep well at night.”
Shannon got the opportunity to go on a mission trip of her own and went to Zambia to get her hands dirty a few years ago. She said it was years before she would use a dishwasher again, seeing the conditions in which people live over there. She said she had another friend who came home and stopped getting manicures.
“It changes your life completely. It really does,” she said. “You think you’re over there to help other people, but it changes you forever.”
To volunteer or donate to Through These Hands, call 610-428-2786 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. (TTH does NOT accept drugs/medication.) For more info, visit throughthesehands.org.