Audrey Graf (white sweater) and Sharon Williams (red shirt at...

Audrey Graf (white sweater) and Sharon Williams (red shirt at right), both volunteers at the thrift store of Smithtown's Lending Comforts to the Sick organization, sort newly donated clothing. (Oct. 15, 2013) Credit: Newsday / Audrey C. Tiernan

The Society for Lending Comforts to the Sick has combated closure and is trying to ensure that the century-old Smithtown service continues for generations.

The volunteer group that has loaned medical equipment such as wheelchairs, walkers, commodes, crutches and canes to town residents since 1906, plans to hold an open house Saturday to raise funds -- and awareness -- to continue providing service.

"Nobody knows about it in Smithtown," said volunteer Sharon Williams of Smithtown, adding that she has borrowed a wheelchair, commode and transfer chair for her disabled mother. "I'm here for payback, because they helped me."

The organization survives through donations and sales from clothing, jewelry and household items at its adjacent thrift store -- where many items are $5 or less.

In 2010, the group lost hundreds of thousands of dollars and faced closure when People's United Bank acquired the Bank of Smithtown, decreasing the value of its shares, said Joan Vitale, president of the society's board of directors.

"We were kind of in dire straits for a while, and we still are," she said. "If we don't man the thrift shop and raise the money, we could go down the tube. Some of the people . . . were begging me not to let it go down because it had been in existence for 100 years."

Attempts to reach a People's bank representative were not successful. A December 2010 news release said that People's United Financial Inc. completed an acquisition of Smithtown Bancorp Inc. valued at about $56.4 million.Smithtown Bancorp's subsidiary, Bank of Smithtown, had 30 branches on Long Island and one in New York City at the time, the release said.

In better years, wealthy Smithtown residents would hold an annual auction of expensive lamps, china and crystal to benefit the organization, said Vitale, 81.

about every three months and disinfecting returned items.

"Now we're going through the cycle where everybody needs wheelchairs," said lending closet volunteer Marion Ward, 68, of Holbrook, adding that about eight people are waiting for them. "They feel, 'Why should we go out and buy it when I need it for a 6-week period?' The costs are great."

Wheelchairs can start at $250 to $350, depending on features, while some wheeled walkers with seats are about $160, a local pharmacy owner said. Typical users can range from those who have had knee and hip replacement surgeries to victims of stroke, Ward said.

Linda Bryan, 62, of Commack, who has had two knee replacements, said she borrowed a wheelchair from the group to see a play in New York City. Bryan recently visited the lending closet to test out a cane, adding that it is a "convenient . . . resource" to try them out before investing in medical items.

"They're gracious, they're accommodating, they're compassionate," Bryan said. "Even though you're very needy, they don't look at you as being needy."Joel Hubbard, who described himself as a "senior citizen" while purchasing a frame at the group's thrift store, said the organization cuts through layers of bureaucracy that people may encounter trying to get needed medical equipment.

"You have no idea how much [insurance companies] make you bow and scrape," said Hubbard, of Smithtown. "It's a great organization, because it gives people their autonomy."

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