“There will be a ‘loan closet,’” read an article dated October 29, 1908, “with bed linen, night clothes, rubber rings, and other nursing appliances, which are furnished patients during their illness.”
In the beginning, the Visiting Nurse Association of Santa Barbara had one nurse, Miss A. L. Frisbie, who was responsible for delivering medical items and supplies to patients’ homes, and she alone was accountable for keeping records of what was borrowed by whom. At that time, it was also required that all borrowed articles be cleaned and in good order upon return. The visiting nurses did what they could to provide free equipment for their patients, but it was going to take a generous heart, as well as a generous pocket book, to continue to serve the growing needs of the community, over the years.
In 1948, Thomas M. Storke, then publisher and editor of the Santa Barbara News-Press, broke his leg and was in need of a wheelchair for a brief period of time. He discovered just how expensive it was to rent a wheelchair and other medical equipment, and questioned how the average family could afford such an expense. Inspired by his experience, Mr. Storke began a charitable fund to solicit donations to buy and stock the Loan Closet with crutches, braces, wheelchairs, walkers, commode chairs, bed trays, and other hospital equipment, needed for limited use by patients.
It was during the holiday season in 1948 that the Santa Barbara News-Press Christmas Fund came to fruition as an annual fundraiser for the Loan Closet. It was a huge success and would become the primary financial support of the Loan Closet for more than half a century. At the conclusion of the campaign every year, Mr. Storke would load up a News-Press delivery van with medical equipment, which was delivered with care to all the patients in need.
As the equipment and the patient need multiplied, so did the staff. In 1965, Sally Hall was on the VNA Board of Directors and worked in the “little red house” at 133 East Haley Street, along with a nurse and two other administrative staff. While most of the nursing care was done in the home, much of the business that was done at the office involved the growing Loan Closet. At the time, the medical equipment was stored in the carriage house of the Haley Street headquarters. The carriage house was the “garage” for the horse and buggy, which had been used to make home visits by the first visiting nurses.
Even in 1965, the Loan Closet was still very informal. Sally recalled that the Loan Closet had a budget of $60 a month and that record cards were kept in a little box and each record had a hole punched in the corner of the card. The book keeper would keep an account for each day by stacking all the records on a stick. She could tell how many people visited that day by the height of the stack of cards.
In 1975, Barbie Free was the matriarch of the modern day Loan Closet. She started working as the Loan Closet Coordinator at the same time the building was being remodeled and had incorporated an annex. Her passion for her community and providing a much needed service was unparalleled. Some would say she was responsible for the transition into the professional operation it is today, as a more “official” Loan Closet.
Within a decade, it became clear that the entire operation was outgrowing the landmark “little red house,” and in 1983, VNA headquarters and the Loan Closet moved to North Milpas Street. There would be several more moves until headquarters landed on East Canon Perdido Street, where it would remain for the next 23 years. At the Canon Perdido office, the mode in which the equipment was cleaned would still be considered archaic. Volunteers and the one paid employee would bring the equipment out to a picnic table in the back, hose it down, and perform minor maintenance.
By the early 2000s, the Loan Closet was serving 1,100 patrons annually and the need for full time staff was apparent; VNA Health worked with the County of Santa Barbara to hire a second staff person. By 2016, the Loan Closet was loaning medical equipment to more than 4,000 people annually and the staffing and volunteers again increased to meet the need.
In 2017, the Loan Closet moved to its current location, bringing all VNA Health services onto the same Olive Court campus in downtown Santa Barbara. The new building offered a cleaning room with hot water and a wash rack where employees and volunteers could clean and sanitize equipment at a level aligned with the policies of a Licensed Durable Medical Equipment distributor. While the Loan Closet is not legally required to sanitize at that level because it is a free community resource, VNA Health made it a priority to do so. Advancements in technology have also helped the Loan Closet offer improved customer service. Clients can fill out the Equipment Loan Form online before coming into the office, allowing staff to serve more patrons and access data efficiently during equipment return.
The Loan Closet is proud to be the only local community resource offering free, well-maintained, durable medical equipment for short-term use. Its history of doing so spans more than a century, and started the very first day the VNA opened. Although times may change, as well as the supplies, VNA Health is committed to loan the much needed equipment to the Santa Barbara community—now and for the next 110 years to come.
Help Us Continue to Serve the Community
VNA Health’s Loan Closet is a free community resource serving more than 4,000 Santa Barbara County residents each year. The Loan Closet provides durable medical equipment at no cost to Santa Barbara County residents on a short-term basis. Your tax-deductible donations are appreciated and help ensure the Loan Closet is available to support the next family in need. If you would like to make a monetary donation, please call 805.690.6290.