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In 1953, a Detroit housewife--Irene M. Auberlin--embarked upon a remarkable mission. Inspired by the plight of a single war orphan during the height of the Korean War, Mrs. Auberlin mobilized her friends and family to collect food, baby clothing, cribs, and medicines to ship overseas. Her original goal--to help one small boy--turned into a much larger mission: relieving the pain and suffering of an entire orphanage filled with 400 hurting children. Under Mrs. Auberlin’s careful watch (and with the assistance of her husband Lester), the mission expanded. World Medical Relief began collecting and distributing recycled medical and dental equipment, medical supplies, and medicines to aid thousands of sick and poor people around the globe. They were doing “God’s work,” as Mrs. A. would say, by turning the sins of waste into the miracles of mercy.


For many years, World Medical Relief continued its international goal of helping people with medical and pharmaceutical needs in developing countries. However, in 1966, the organization identified a local focus. United Foundation (now United Way Community Services) approached Mrs. Auberlin to develop the Prescription Program for Seniors, a prescription medication assistance program for low-income senior citizens who had no health insurance, were ineligible for Medicaid, and had little or no means to obtain their prescription drugs. With United Foundation’s help, World Medical Relief was granted a State of Michigan pharmacy license. Mrs. A. opened a pharmacy, hired a pharmacist, and began distributing medications with the help of hundreds of volunteers. As World Medical Relief celebrates each year of serving God’s sick poor, Mrs. Auberlin’s vision lives on in each of us who have committed time, talents, and resources over the decades. Although Mrs. Auberlin passed away in 1999, we continue to follow the path of a “world class beggar.” We will perpetuate the mission she so valiantly began--and in keeping with Mrs. A.’s extraordinary sense of humor, we quote her: “Don’t keep it. Give it to us.”


At first glance, Mrs. Irene Auberlin did not seem unlike any other housewife in Detroit in the 1950’s. Yet after watching a television program during the Korean War in 1953 that featured a blue eyed, biracial, Korean orphan, it was clear that Mrs. Auberlin was extraordinary in that took decisive action to help this one child. She began to call herself a,world class beggar,” because she asked anyone who would listen for supplies. She collected diapers, cribs, clothing, formula, and anything else that could be given to the Korean orphanage. Her own home became the office, warehouse, and shipping point for the tons of donations that poured in from those inspired by both a hopeless child and a determined woman.


Mrs. Auberlin shipped three barrels of baby items to the Star of the Sea Hospital and Orphanage in Inchon, South Korea. Sister Philomena, the nun who ran the orphanage, wrote Mrs. Auberlin to thank her for her extraordinary efforts. Sister Philomena’s encouragement drove Mrs. Auberlin to continue collecting supplies and other resources to meet the needs of the orphanage. The response to the clever and compelling classified ad was overwhelmingly positive, and many Detroiters donated money and supplies to Mrs. Auberlin’s cause. The story of the Korean orphans and Mrs. Auberlin’s determination spread quickly throughout Michigan and other states, and even more supplies poured in for the children. Using a list of items that Sister Philomena needed, Mrs. Auberlin asked doctors, hospital administrators, and pharmaceutical suppliers to help her turn, “the sins of waste into the miracle of mercy worldwide.” Mr. Auberlin repaired the donated medical equipment that was given.


Despite the weekly efforts of University of Detroit students who helped Mrs. Auberlin pack her supplies, her collection was growing at a rate faster than she could handle. She knew she needed outside help, and asked the military, shipping yards, international agencies, and even freights and airlines to aid her cause. Michigan’s U.S. Senator Homer Ferguson, then a member of the Senate’s Appropriations Committee, helped Mrs. Auberlin get in touch with the Catholic Relief Services, which relieved Mrs. Auberlin of some of her stress. 


By 1956, however, there was still a problem of space, and a desperate need for a warehouse to store all of the donations. The last straw, for both the Auberlins and their neighbors, came when a delivery truck filled their backyard with hospital beds, wheelchairs, and bedpans when they were not at home. The efforts, now collectively called World Medical Relief (WMR) moved to a four-story warehouse in Detroit, but the work outgrew several warehouses over the years. Because Mrs. Auberlin’s story traveled throughout the world, so too did the requests for help from World Medical Relief. In 1964, with the help of the late Stanley S. Kresge, Mrs. Auberlin and World Medical Relief moved into an eight-story warehouse to fulfill the growing requests, which Mrs. Auberlin called, “The house that Faith built.”


World Medical Relief joined forces with the United Foundation to create a monthly prescription program in 1966 for elderly Detroiters. After the violent riots in Detroit in 1967, the Auberlins sold their house and moved into the World Medical Relief warehouse to protect the drugs and equipment intended for needy overseas. It was another testament to Mr. and Mrs. Auberlin’s complete dedication to helping others that continued well into the late-twentieth century. Mrs. Auberlin, the woman who started it all, lived to be 102 years old and to see the broad and well-recognized organization World Medical Relief has become.

Irene and Lester Auberlin

Read "The Mother Theresa of Detroit" in Michigan's History Magazine here!

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