Houston Buyers Club’s (now Expert Nutrition) ‘Ellen’s Hand’ program assists 500 women in need—and counting
by Nancy Ford
Photos by Dalton DeHart
They most strongly remember Ellen Hahn for her quick, sarcastic sense of humor. “We almost named the program ‘Ellen’s Finger,’ which would be more suited to her personality,” Marc Samuels, program director for Expert Nutrition, laughs, shaking his head gently at the memory. “She was just an amazing soul.”
A 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that opened its doors in 1986, Houston Buyers Club (now Expert Nutrition) provides vitamins and nutritional supplements as well as nutritional counseling and education to clients with HIV and other ailments. Beyond her audacious personality and being a strong and integral supporter of Expert Nutrition, Hahn’s skills as a former certified public accountant and government auditor were integral to the smooth operation of the organization.
In 2004, three years prior to Hahn’s death, Expert Nutrition established its Ellen’s Hand program, which provides low- to no-cost nutritional supplements and counseling to individuals who could not otherwise afford them. Since that time, Fred Walters, founding director of Expert Nutrition, estimates that more than 500 clients, mostly women, have received nutritional services.
“There are a lot of conditions that have side effects, and those side effects can [often be managed inexpensively with supplements],” Walters explains. “But it costs a lot of money to help guide clients toward those solutions. We do that cheaper than anybody, because we have relationships with nutritional vendors who give us the best discounts, which means it costs a whole lot less than going to any clinic with a registered dietician and getting those supplements prescribed.”
“We do it cheaper than anyone,” Samuels confirms, “and we provide a service that most people don’t do.”
Recently, Samuels and Walters discussed specifics of the Ellen’s Hand program, how it helps clients in need, and what EN needs to keep it all going.
OutSmart: Describe the person who most likely qualifies to receive Ellen’s Hand assistance, please.
Fred Walters: It’s mostly the single woman who doesn’t really have a foundation of people around her—people to help her find the places to go to find the right resources. Those are usually the kind of women that find us.
OS: Would you say that Ellen’s Hand provides more nutritional supplements or information, or a mixture of both?
Marc Samuels: I would say it’s 40 percent supplements and 60 percent nutritional counseling. A lot of people who come in don’t get a chance to talk to their doctor in the way they can talk to the nutritional counselor here. We talk about meal plans, and the way they’re getting nutrition. You don’t usually get that when you go to a doctor.
OS: What is the most common affliction or ailment that Ellen’s Hand clients experience?
FW and MS (simultaneously): Fatigue.
FW: A lot of the EH people come in with particular conditions: cancer side effects, HIV, fatigue, high liver enzymes, like from Hep C. There’s one individual that has several conditions, and when you have to take so many medications for several conditions, there are a lot of different variations of side effects. I would say probably the most common ones are chronic fatigue and HIV. We’ve also seen a little bit of a spike in cancer side effects.
OS: How does that break down between men and women?
MS: Well, Ellen’s Hand is specifically for women. We have additional counseling programs that receive funding from outside sources and help any client that may fall through the cracks, or isn’t eligible for Ryan White funding.
OS: Then Ellen’s Hand is kind of a “safety net”? A “catchall”?
FW: Yes. When we first started the program, it was to provide counseling and supplements, but the focus of Ellen’s Hand has been toward women. We get donations, and donated supplements from our [nutritional supplements sales] reps and from Whole Foods. Our thrust is toward women, but anyone can qualify. Most of the men who come to us for help are HIV-positive, and most of them qualify for assistance under Ryan White.
OS: Can you take me through the process? A woman is diagnosed, let’s say, with chronic fatigue. She needs something, she doesn’t know what she needs, she wanders into EN, she’s never heard of Ellen’s Hand before, she is on a limited income…
MS: Most likely she’s talked to somebody who’s said, “Go to Expert Nutrition. They have people who work there who can help you with side effects.” If [a customer] says something like “Oh, this is just too expensive,” we say, “We have this program called Ellen’s Hand. If these products here are just not in your budget, we can possibly get you help there.” We give them the application, they fill it out, and they are referred to our nutrition department.
FW: Our staff is really keen to that. It’s not like there are a specific set of any key words. They get a sense of the individual, if they’re really poor. We actually have employees who have purchased the nutritional supplements for shoppers. Our staff is not paid commissions. They work here because they have the ability to absorb knowledge, not because of the amount of protein powder they can sell.
OS: Do you get referrals for Ellen’s Hand from outside the store?
FW: Yes, we get a lot of referrals from physicians. We get lots of referrals from the community, and from our friends. We have a lot of friends around the city who know about us, and they’ll say to [individuals who need assistance], “Go over to Expert Nutrition.” We don’t really advertise this program, because if we did, it would be incredibly disappointing to people—there would be such a need that we wouldn’t be able to fill it.
OS: HBC relies on individual donations and grants to sustain itself, right?
FW: We have two programs that are
supported strictly from sales. And we spent half a million dollars last year administering our Ryan White Program, but we were only reimbursed [a portion of that]. So you may hear out in the community that Expert Nutrition isn’t doing well: “I don’t know what their problem is in there!” But the holes on the shelves are because we had to spend money to buy supplements and pay the dieticians’ [salaries].
The other thing is that when a client has a need and their story is really acute, we schedule counseling. A lot of times, we will provide thousands of dollars’ worth of services, even though we may not get funding for months. Or we don’t even know if the funding is out there. When Bunnies on the Bayou gave us $10,000 through Kindred Spirits Foundation, probably half of that money should go to pay for the big hole from services we provided months ago. So we’re always providing services, and praying for the money to come in.
OS: What is generally the turnaround time—from the time that someone applies for Ellen’s Hand assistance to the time they actually have that nutritional supplement in hand?
MS: Unfortunately, because there is a great need and the fact that we can’t afford a lot of counseling from registered dieticians, it can take up to a month from the time the application is submitted, approved, and an appointment is set.
OS: Does someone who applies under Ellen’s Hand always receive nutritional counseling before they receive supplements?
FW: They also have to have clinical labs, because our dietician isn’t going to introduce a supplement that would interact with [the client’s] lab results.
MS: Or, we don’t want to dispense something, like Ensure, when it’s not the right product for him or her. They might need protein, but that’s not the way they should be getting it.
OS: In other words, the more you know about your client, the more you are able to help them.
FW: That’s why it takes so much time and costs more money than just the 45 minutes to an hour. It’s not just that time that the registered dietician spends [with the client]. They spend as much as 30 minutes after that, writing progress notes, reviewing charts, and things like that.
OS: What is EN’s greatest need, in order to sustain your programs and keep your doors open?
FW: We need $90,000 a year. If we had $90,000 a year, the wait time would be a week to two weeks for clients. And we could stock the shelves. And we could pay for more dieticians. Really, when we started the HIV program, it was “Come on in, we’ll see you right away.”
OS: Are there any other similar programs in EN that assist EN clients who are in financial need, other than Ellen’s Hand?
FW: We do education workshops, but we haven’t received funding lately to be able to do that. $90,000 a year is what we need to do what we do best.
We got a call recently from one of our favorite clients in the world, who called to say, “When I die, you should get a call from my estate. Expert Nutrition is in my will, and you guys are getting 25 percent of my estate.” I was like, “Wow.”
OS: Do you experience that often?
FW: No. We’ve only had two people tell
OS: I’m sorry that your client is thinking about such things, but I’m glad that he recognizes the important work that you do.
MS: Also, [when] people purchase products in our store, a portion of that money goes back into our programs. The most passive thing someone could do to help our programs is to just shop here.
To learn more and donate to Expert Nutrition and Ellen’s Hand, log on to houston
buyersclub.org. Expert Nutrition is located at 3224 Yoakum Street.
Sharing the Wealth One of the Ellen’s Hand program’s chief funders is Kindred Spirits Foundation, which donates a portion of the proceeds from KSF’s social events held throughout the year. “I don’t think we could have kept this program alive without Kindred Spirits,” Fred Walters says. “They are the main funder of Ellen’s Hand.” In June, Kindred Spirits Foundation received a $10,000 grant from Bunnies on the Bayou’s 2011 Easter party, specifically earmarked to enhance HBC’s Ellen’s Hand program. Adding to that pot, the women of Kindred Spirits Foundation present their annual summer dance celebration with DJ Joy De La O, which also benefits AssistHers and Lesbian Health Initiative Houston. July 30, 7:30 p.m. SPJST Lodge, 1435 Beall Street in the Heights • kindredspiritshouston.org.