Richard Toms’ new baby is taking its first step and he’s as happy as the father of an infant nonprofit can be. His latest venture, Limbs For U, doesn’t have a staff, or an office, yet, but it does have potential for transforming lives.
“In my life, I’ve done a lot of things,” Toms said, “but this is a passion.” Until now, his entrepreneurship has been about making money, but this time he says he has a different mission.
His idea is to send used artificial limbs from the United States to clinics in poor countries where they can benefit people who are going without. And he wants to do that as a way of helping them support themselves and improve their own prospects.
Toms has helped a few people so far, but a new relationship with the Northwest Center promises to launch his project to a full-scale operation in multiple countries. It’s a business-oriented good-works project that fits Toms and the Northwest Center.
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Toms, 69, told me he’s been a stockbroker and an insurance agent, and for a time ran a business that supplied gumbo to supermarket chains.
This new venture took a while to marinate in his head, and as often happens, it grew from several unrelated events — the first was the death of his brother, who died in 2005 after suffering a stroke.
Toms needed a break after that and took up a friend’s invitation to visit him in South Africa. Toms said he went for three weeks, fell in love with Soweto and decided to stay.
One day, he said, “A young lady gets off a school bus and I see she’s an amputee, but she has a U-shaped wire that’s pinched into her skin that serves as her prosthetic.” Toms said he was shocked, and that image of the girl stuck with him. He thought something should be done to help her, but he had no idea what.
Toms was living off his investments, until the Great Recession drained his savings. He came back to Seattle in 2009, but the image of the girl kept coming back to him, and Toms said he knew he was supposed to do something. When Toms was in college, his father, who had diabetes, had a foot amputated and replaced by a prosthetic. He says poverty shouldn’t deprive a person of mobility.
He started his nonprofit. He’d met a guy named Robert Baker, who had a prosthetic arm, and Baker told him about Hangar Inc., a 150-year-old company that calls itself the “world’s premier provider of orthotic and prosthetic (O & P) patient care services.”
They make a lot of artificial limbs. Toms met with the Tacoma branch, and it gave him four boxes of limbs. Toms said of the devices: “In the United States, prosthetic limbs have a fixed life span after which they cannot be reused.” But even though they can’t be reused here, he was told they usually are still sound.
Another relationship guided him to a place where the limbs would be welcome. A college friend works for a company that has plants in several developing nations. One of the plants is in the Dominican Republic, and his friend had told him people with missing limbs are common there.
Toms traveled there with his friend in 2011 and met a factory worker named Jonathan who worked a 40-hour week standing on two crutches because one leg had been amputated. Toms partnered with a clinic there, and Jonathan became the first beneficiary of the new nonprofit. With his new leg, Jonathan was able to get a job that paid more.
Toms and the clinic have helped more than 25 people so far. Now, with Northwest Center (NWC) on board, Limbs For U can grow.
Mike Quinn, NWC vice president for manufacturing production and assembly, said that after meeting Toms and hearing his ideas, he told Toms, “I don’t know where this goes, but I’m going with you.”
Northwest Center provides a range of services to people with developmental disabilities, and it hires and trains people of all abilities for jobs in the 11 businesses it owns. It creates jobs and opportunities at the same time. Both men said they’re about using business for a social good and empowering people to help themselves.
Quinn said he told Toms, “I’m going to create jobs for people in Seattle who have extreme challenges to employment, and you are going to take that product and give it to people who have little chance of getting it otherwise. … That’s off the charts.”
Northwest Center will clean, categorize and disassemble the artificial limbs, removing the parts fitted for a specific person.
Limbs For U will acquire the devices, make connections with clinics in the areas to be served and ship the limbs.
The clinics will fit them to people in their area, and pay a much lower price than they would for a new device.
Toms said he built up a lot of know-how running various businesses and now wants to use it for philanthropic purposes. It’s a worthy goal.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org