Trading T-Shirts For Life-Saving Treatment

For years, Mitch Rhodus, president of WIT Promotions—a branded promotional merchandise company in Cincinnati, Ohio—sent apparel donations to Haiti with a medical missions team. But each year, a doctor on the trip would ask him to join the group. Finally, after five years, Mitch decided to see what it was all about. “That was 10 years ago,” he says. “And I’ve gone down every year since.”

On the weeklong mission, the team visits six clinics in six different villages. Four doctors, four nurses, three pharmacists, and a crew of non-medical organizers like Mitch see about 225 patients at each clinic. “These villages are very remote and far, far away from civilization,” says Mitch. Because of the lack of standard medical care in these areas, problems that are easily treatable in the United States can become life-threatening. The clinic offers everything from eye tests to parasite treatment and is the only care most village residents receive all year. “We probably affect the lives of 90 percent of residents,” says Mitch.

While his role as a logistics team leader on the trip is crucial, Mitch’s most unique offering is his role in the promotional products industry. He provides matching shirts for the missions team, a necessary step in ensuring staff members can be identified in a busy infirmary. “It’s paramount for the success of the clinic and the safety of our team,” says Mitch, who also brings a large clothing donation of misprinted apparel and shirts received through the SanMar Customer Merchandise Donation Fund. Clothing items are coveted goods in the small villages of Haiti, and every resident who comes into the clinic leaves with a shirt or another gift. “Kids are scared to death to come to the doctor. But when they see someone leaving the clinic with a T-shirt, they say, ‘Oh, I want one of those,’” he says. “So we use our industry to encourage people to come through the clinic.”

Mitch says seeing the value his patients assign to something like a misprinted T-shirt makes him want to donate all he can. “When you go to a football game, Americans who already have 20 T-shirts at home are clamoring for those shirts they throw into the crowd like they need another one,” he says. “But, down in Haiti, that little T-shirt is extremely valuable. It makes you go, ‘Wow, how many T-shirts can I give away?’ It’s pretty impactful.”

The stories Mitch shares are just a small window into the massive impact his team has on the lives of patients. One year, a man brought his 17-year-old niece in for treatment. Weighing just 50 pounds, she was blind and “nothing but skin and bones,” says Mitch. “It was the worst I’ve ever seen.” The man explained that his niece was diabetic, but because insulin cost 30 dollars a month and he had three other kids to feed, he wasn’t able to provide the care she needed. Mitch bribed someone in the village to go get a truck—because “there’s no such thing as calling 911”—to transfer them to a hospital, where a doctor said the girl may not make it. That night, a member of the missions team pledged to pay the cost of her insulin for life, and a year later, the missions team was able to meet the woman they saved. “This girl could see again, and she was 80 pounds heavier,” says Mitch. “We just couldn’t believe it. It was incomprehensible.”

Thanks to the annual clinic, village residents are often able to receive treatment before their situations become so dire. Mitch says he’s thrilled to have found a way to encourage patients to seek care. “One of the doctors summed it up best one day,” says Mitch. “He said, ‘They really come to the clinic for Mitch’s trinkets, but while they’re here, we save their lives.’”

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