After retiring from social work five years ago, Chris Meyer wasn't finished with helping people. "Social work is not just a job. It's a calling," he said. "I wanted to do something that made an impact both locally and globally."
Mr. Meyer, 65, of Whitehall, hoped to focus on the Caribbean -- Haiti specifically -- but wanted a local way to get involved. When he discovered Global Links, a Pittsburgh-based agency that finds environmentally friendly alternatives to sending 300 tons of still-viable medical material to local landfills each year, he knew he had found the right connection.
Global Links takes items that would be discarded -- such as unused bandages, surgical equipment, sutures, syringes, hospital furnishings and nebulizers -- and sends them to underserved medical clinics and hospitals in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Its two-pronged approach struck Mr. Meyer as both brilliant and practical.
"The more I learned about Global Links, the more I was blown away by their commitment," he said. "I liked how the organization tied itself to a local mission of keeping things out of our landfills by reusing them in countries where people would die without them. I started out packing boxes of donated items before it evolved into what it is now."
After the Haiti earthquake in 2010, he turned his focus to its wheelchair workshop, where he found his calling. He repairs and cleans used and discarded crutches, walkers and wheelchairs -- helping roughly 500 people a year to regain their mobility.
Because of his contributions, he has been tapped as one of the six finalists for Most Outstanding Volunteer of the Year for the 2013 Jefferson Award of Public Service program. The Forbes Fund will donate $1,000 to Global Links on his behalf.
The winner will be announced at an awards ceremony Tuesday (which happens to be Mr. Meyer's birthday) at Heinz Field. That person will represent Western Pennsylvania at the national Jefferson Awards ceremony in Washington, D.C., this summer.
The Jefferson Awards program locally is administered by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and sponsored by Highmark and BNY Mellon.
Mr. Meyer began his career working with delinquent and dependent youth in group homes and community mental health organizations before landing at the Allegheny County Department of Aging and Kane Regional Centers, where he worked for 24 years.
Upon retirement, he not only spent time with Global Links but also worked with literacy programs, specifically volunteering to teach English as a second language. After the Haiti earthquake, however, he decided to recommit to Global Links and take on more responsibilities within the organization.
He was tasked with repairing and cleaning used and discarded crutches, walkers and wheelchairs in a "dirty, cold warehouse in North Point Breeze," he recalled. "Now the warehouse is located in Green Tree ... and much nicer to work in," he added with a chuckle.
Global Links accepts these items from people who no longer need them, Mr. Meyer explained. If the item is unable to be reused, he scraps it for parts, recycling what he can toward others that can be salvaged.
Mr. Meyer's late wife of 25 years, who had multiple sclerosis, used a wheelchair at the time of her death, giving him an understanding of how precious mobility is.
"It seemed to come full circle in my mind," he said. Learning how to fix wheelchairs, especially smaller ones made for children, helped strengthen his connection to the work.
He took charge of the project, expanded it, oversaw its development and now trains other volunteers to assist in revitalizing up to 10 wheelchairs a week, depending on the complexity of the repair needed or the time it takes to find parts. These wheelchairs are then packaged and sent to people in Latin American and Caribbean communities.
Stacy Bodow, volunteer coordinator at Global Links, nominated Mr. Meyer for a Jefferson Award.
"Honestly, he was the first person that popped into my head," Ms. Bodow said. "He inspires me, works independently and takes initiative. He took on this program, advanced it and guides the process. I can't believe how far he has taken it."
Although the organization has roughly 700 volunteers a year, very few commit the way Mr. Meyer has, she added. But getting him to accept the nomination was much harder than anticipated, Ms. Bodow recalled. When first informed he was among six finalists for Outstanding Volunteer for the Jefferson Awards, he tried to turn it down.
"There are a lot of people working just as hard as me, who have been doing this a lot longer than me," Mr. Meyer said. "I want Global Links to get the attention rather than me."
Still he doesn't mind that the attention brought to him has prompted friends and colleagues to donate to the organization. "It is humbling to see my friends recognize that there is a need and get involved."
He also encourages others who have never thought to volunteer to give it a try.
"Global Links, like so many organizations, cannot exist without volunteers. If you have never done it, try it. Even if you can give two hours a month, it feels so great to give back and make a difference."
Natalie Bencivenga: firstname.lastname@example.org; 412-263-1582.