Amid Ukraine crisis, World Medical Relief helps victims of war

By: Andy Kozlowski | Metro | Published November 21, 2022


SOUTHFIELD — For nearly 70 years, a local nonprofit has been bringing lifesaving supplies and services to people in war zones around the world. Its mission continues with no end in sight, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine approaches its 10th month.

World Medical Relief, in Southfield, was founded in 1953 to help orphans left homeless by the Korean War. Its founder, Detroit housewife Irene Auberlin, reached out to community members and began collecting items at her home. It wasn’t long before she convinced businesses to do the same, riding the wave of charitable giving in the wake of World War II. An eight-story building on 12th Street in Detroit — now Rosa Parks Boulevard — was donated to the cause, and World Medical Relief began operations there as a full-fledged nonprofit, flying donated medical supplies and equipment to Korea.

As word spread, requests came in from other places overseas, as well. Auberlin mobilized additional help, loading containers on ocean-going vessels to reach even more underserved areas. The demand began to overwhelm the Rosa Parks facility, however, since it only had a single loading dock for shipments. That led World Medical Relief to its current location — a single-story building that nonetheless has the same amount of space as the building in Detroit, but with the benefit of eight loading docks instead of one, allowing the organization to send 60-75 shipments annually.

The team at World Medical Relief has also grown over the years. Originally, the staff consisted solely of Auberlin and her husband after he retired — neither of whom took a salary — and an assistant bookkeeper. Everyone else was a volunteer, helping to sort and crate items for shipping. Today, there are now 18 full-time and part-time staff members, but volunteers continue to play a key role at World Medical Relief, including students and medical professionals.

To date, the organization has provided aid to more than 100 countries. Currently, the focus is assisting doctors in Ukraine as they treat the wounded brought back from the war. Shipments have been going to Poland and are transferred to Ukraine from there. The contents mostly include surgical instruments and other medical supplies.

Mary Jo Dorsey is a retired registered nurse who volunteers with World Medical Relief. She is accompanied by her daughter, who is also a nurse, as well as her granddaughter, who is a student at the University of Michigan.

“Volunteering at World Medical Relief makes me feel that my experience as a nurse is useful to the team,” Dorsey said via email. “It keeps my hand in doing what I dealt with for so long, but I am not in the day-to-day drama of employment as a nurse.”

Barbara Rice is another volunteer at World Medical Relief. She has been with the organization for more than 10 years in a clerical position.

“I was looking for something after I retired from a telecommunications position with Wayne County,” Rice said via email. “I signed up with RSVP (the Retired Senior Volunteer Program), and they told me about World Medical Relief. Here I am volunteering in the office, with a variety of tasks including recording the many, many hours that individuals and groups volunteer for us.”

The work of World Medical Relief is not limited exclusively to areas of conflict. Since 1966, World Medical Relief has also maintained a prescription program for senior citizens living in Detroit. The program was seeded with funds from the United Foundation — now United Way — which paid the wages of the pharmacist. Today, the program has expanded to cover low-income residents of Michigan ages 18 and older who qualify.

A variety of grants support the program, including a grant from the city of Detroit, which uses the program for purchasing generic medications. The organization also continues to add items such as durable medical equipment, liquid nutrition and incontinence products.

More recently, World Medical Relief has added a diabetic coordinator who will purchase insulin for the prescription program. The agency is also in the midst of its blanket drive, where it will be distributing 10,000 donated disaster blankets to shelters and other groups helping people this winter. World Medical Relief is also providing several thousand personal hygiene kits to the same groups. Each kit contains a towel, washcloth, soap, shampoo, deodorant, toothpaste, a toothbrush and a comb.

Monetary donations are needed to support these initiatives, as well as non-narcotic medical supplies that are unexpired and still sealed. Equipment used for home care, including walkers and wheelchairs and hospital beds, are also appreciated. There is always a need for more volunteers to collect, sort and ship the items.

More information on both donating and volunteering can be found at

Carolyn Racklyeft, an executive secretary at World Medical Relief, described the satisfaction of working for such a noble cause.

“It is such a rewarding experience to witness donations coming in every day from hospitals, doctors’ offices, companies and individuals — items that they have too much of, are changing brands, no longer need, or that have short expiration dates,” Racklyeft said via email. “All of these are being recycled by our volunteers, and sent to improve and save lives — locally, and all over the world.”