Joni Rowe, Unsung Hero

On her rural property east of Redding, a lone wheelchair by the road alerts visitors they’re nearing the home of Joni Rowe.  It’s a fitting yard ornament. For a dozen years, Rowe has seen to it that people in need have gotten all manner of medical equipment at no cost.

Closer to the house, a stockpile of walkers, canes, crutches and the like await adoption. She’s still a little puzzled as to how she became head wrangler, as some call her, for all these castoffs.

“I’ve been asked that so many times, and I’ve never quite figured it out,” said the resourceful redhead, who declined to give her age.  “I admit to 49,” she said, grinning.

Requests come from far and wide. It might be a death in the family that prompts families to recycle health aids.

After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, one relief group hauled away more than 100 pieces of equipment Rowe had collected. And one time Rowe was contacted by someone in Portland, Ore., and ended up handing off an electric scooter to someone from Corning.

Her dining room table serves as her office, where she keeps a jar full of pens, a magnifying glass, a Rolodex with her contacts and her all-important spiral notebook containing dates, names and needs. Some people have suggested she get email, but she’s having none of that.  “I don’t have time,” she said. “I can’t be bothered.”

When she’s not picking things up or making deliveries in her van, she’s working at the All Saints Thrift Shop in Redding or chairing the Shasta Stroke Support Group at Shasta Regional Medical Center.

People of Progress Executive Director Melinda Brown and Katie Bullock, assistive technology coordinator for Independent Living Services of Northern California, met recently to better get the word out to organizations and the public about Rowe’s work.

To that end, Rowe now has her own voice mailbox through POP’s Connect Message Center.

“Joni saw that there was a gap, so she’s doing what some of the organizations used to do,” Brown said, noting that many groups no longer have staff or space to accommodate the medical donations.

“Joni is incredible. She’s just a little heroine.”

Rowe also has worked closely with the American Cancer Society’s Discovery Shop in Redding. Judi Rumsey, part-time sales associate at the store, first connected with Rowe two years ago after someone donated $2,000 of supplemental nutrition and feeding tubes.

“She’s just turned into our angel, pure and simple,” Rumsey said. Whether it’s a shower chair, commode or hospital bed, Rowe has been able to find someone in need.

Bullock’s agency, a nonprofit organization that offers support and advocacy for the disabled, also has worked closely with Rowe. It also has launched its own medical equipment program.

In addition, Rowe is networked with nursing homes and other facilities.

Rowe lost her 77-year-old husband, David, in 1997, after he’d suffered a stroke seven years earlier. And having had both cancer and polio herself, she finds empathy comes naturally.

But she’s nothing, if not modest, about her contribution.

“I am glad I’m able to help someone who needs it,” she said.

To view a YouTube video of Joni Rowe:

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Originally published by the Redding Record-Searchlight on-line   Posted July 8, 2012 at 11:16 p.m.