MURRAY — Every day of the workweek, Ernest Robison opens the doors to his business/warehouse just west of the I-15 freeway and gives away his inventory.
He's been doing it for 17 years. And he's still going strong.
His secret to success? His crack business plan?
He hesitates before he answers. It's not something they teach at Harvard Business School.
"Miracles," he finally says. "I see so many miracles — just one after another."
Ernie deals in what is known in the trade as durable medical equipment. It's the kind of stuff you don't know you need until you know you need it: walkers, crutches, bath chairs, trapeze bars, heavy-duty mattresses, hospital beds, portable toilets, power wheelchairs, manual wheelchairs, lifts, stair glides, and hundreds of other items with names you've never heard that help people function when everything doesn't function.
Every single item is priced the same: free. And every single day pieces go out and pieces come in.
It's a remarkable display of capitalism except without the capital.
The name of this unusual enterprise is Ability Found, and it all began 17 years ago, in 1993, four years after Matthew, the sixth and final child in the family of Ernest and Anneka Robison, was born.
Matthew had cerebral palsy and the Robisons were unceremoniously and quite suddenly thrust into the world of caring for children with serious disabilities.
It was both eye-opening and heartbreaking. "It's so hard taking care of all their needs," says Ernie. "There are so many hoops to jump through, so many things to negotiate."
Particularly difficult was getting the kids the equipment they needed to live a life as active as possible.
So Ernie, an educated man with a Ph.D. in bio-physics, started designing and making such equipment — for Matthew and for others.
Ability Found — an official charitable foundation intended to take care of the equipment needs of those who slip through the insurance cracks — was born.
When word spread about what Ernie was up to, donations started to arrive, both monetarily and in the form of equipment, most of it used but some of it new.
Simultaneously, a network developed consisting primarily of physical and occupational therapists who began soliciting Ability Found for equipment needs of their patients who had nowhere else to turn.
The "business" just kept growing, and when Matthew died at the age of 10 in 1999 Ability Found didn't stop or even slow down; it only got stronger — in tribute to Matthew.
Five years ago, Ernie brought a physical therapist named Michael Workman into the operation.
Workman, who gets paid a part-time wage, knows durable medical equipment like Bill Gates knows computers. He's become the foundation's get-it guy. He makes weekly rounds of places where equipment is likely to be found — other charities, Web sites, estate sales. If Michael can't find it, it probably doesn't exist.
"He's got a heart where he just loves to help people," says Ernie of his right-hand man, noting that since Michael came on board the size of their inventory has grown exponentially.
"But it comes in and goes out really fast," Ernie adds.
Survival always depends on new supply. (If you'd like to donate or learn more about Ability Found, go to www.abilityfound.org)
And supply always depends on those miracles.
Ernie likes to think Matthew has something to do with the uncanny frequency of those miracles.
"Mike says Matthew is our third partner," Ernie says.
Mike nods his head enthusiastically in agreement.
"Matthew rolls around with me, I can feel it," he says. "I believe that's why he left early, so he could help us."
And they could help others.
Lee Benson's column runs Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Please send e-mail to [email protected]