How two hot tub retailers found unique ways to serve their communities
By: Megan Kendrick
There are many heartwarming stories of hot tub retailers using their businesses and products to benefit others. We’ve found two examples: One retailer structured part of his business to donate to those in need; the other donated part of his body.
BE THE MATCH
It was just another day at Georgia Spa Company when general manager Josh Kemerling got an unusual email. “I almost didn’t read it,” Kemerling says. It was from Be The Match, a nonprofit organization that helps match patients with potential bone marrow donors. Kemerling, who also works as a firefighter, had joined the registry in 2008 when a fellow firefighter held a bone-marrow drive. Since then, he got occasional fundraising emails from the organization; he thought that’s what this was — “but it said ‘urgent,’ ” Kemerling says.
He had been preliminarily matched with someone in need of bone marrow. Before he’d even finished reading the email, his phone rang. It was Be The Match.
The organization overnighted a kit to a local doctor’s office, and Kemerling went into have his blood drawn. Forty-eight hours later, Be The Match knew that he was a match for a 49-year-old male with leukemia.
Once a match is found, the donation is made shortly thereafter, but in this case it stalled — and Kemerling was left wondering. “I had no clue what had happened,” he says. Later he learned there were issues with the patient’s insurance and health that slowed the process. But after several months of waiting, in mid-October 2013 he got the call that it was on.
“I had to do a physical, the blood work and questionnaire again, just in case anything changed,” Kemerling says. “And then on [November] 4 we were flying up, on the fifth I was done at 1:30 p.m., and back home at 9 that night.”
The most commonly known type of retrieval — drilling into the hip — involves surgery and a recovery time of up to six weeks. But these days that type of retrieval is rare. Like Kemerling, most donors go through the PBSC (peripheral blood stem cells) process. In the days before the donation, he received shots of filgrastin, which made his body increase its stem-cell production. The drug makes you achy, sort of like having the flu. “That was my bones contracting because so much work was going on in there,” Kemerling says. “It was uncomfortable but no biggie.”
Be The Match flew him to Washington, D.C., for the donation. A large IV was inserted into a vein in his left arm. The blood was ran through a machine that spun the stem cells out, then returned them through an IV in his right arm. For four to five hours, Kemerling had to hold his arm still while his stem cells were extracted.
“There’s a picture of me holding up a bag of stem cells after the process,” he says. “There are like 20 million cells in that bag, but it only looks like an IV bag with about two-and-a-half inches of blood in it.”
He was back in Atlanta that night.
Patients and donors aren’t allowed to have contact until a year after the donation. Kemerling wrote letters to the man, and vice versa, while Be The Match blacked out any information that could give away either’s identity. “I knew from the very first letter that he wanted to meet,” Kemerling says, adding that he wanted to meet as well. When the year was up, he signed the waiver and waited. Ten days later, he received an email with contact information of the man to whom he donated. He immediately called and spent the next hour on the phone with the patient, whose name is Craig.
Craig is an RN who works with cardiac patients in Kentucky, where he lives. Through Facebook interactions, Kemerling saw how important Craig was to the people in his life. “It was so neat to see what an impact Craig had made in his hometown,” Kemerling says. “And all the people rallying behind him, praying and holding fundraisers because he has a lot of aftercare medicines.”
At last, Kemerling learned what Craig and his family had gone through before and after Kemerling donated stem cells. While the extraction process was simple and mostly pain-free, receiving the stem cells was anything but. “He had a violent reaction,” Kemerling says. “They had to stabilize him when the cells started going into his body.”
Craig had to spend several months in the hospital after he received the stem cells. He was on a strict diet, wore a mask to limit germ exposure, and steered clear of crowds at church. “His body was basically reset to a newborn’s immune system,” Kemerling says.
Today, Craig has a clean bill of health.
It didn’t matter to Kemerling who Craig was or what he did, but the parallel in their lives touched him. “Having spent the last 12 years in a career [as a firefighter] that’s known for saving lives, how unique to have the opportunity,” Kemerling says. “[Craig] did not have a match in his family. I’m the only one. God used my body and my blood to save this person. And here’s a guy who is also in a lifesaving industry. It was wild.”
Now Kemerling takes whatever opportunity he can to raise awareness for bone marrow donation and Be The Match, speaking at fundraisers and hosting bone marrow donation registry drives.
“You simply swab your cheek, put it in the envelope, fill out one piece of paper with your name and contact information and that’s it,” Kemerling says. “It’d be cool if, as an industry, one out of every five people would go online and order a swab kit.”
HOT TUBS FOR HEALTH
We all know hot tubs can help certain ailments. Often retailers hear testimonials from customers about how a hot tub improved their life. So what do you do when you know a hot tub could greatly benefit someone in pain, but they don’t have the means to buy your product?
Kelly King and his boss at Mountain Hot Tub talked about this for years. The owner had an idea for a program that would put the company in a position to do a lot of good, but it never quite got off the ground. When King bought the business in 2014, he was ready to take action. “Now that I get to do whatever I want, this is what I want,” King says.
The program, Hot Tubs for Health, gives used or new hot tubs to people whose health could benefit. Whenever a customer has a hot tub they want to trade in, Mountain Hot Tub uses that trade to benefit Hot Tubs for Health. If the traded-in hot tub is good enough to sell, the company will resell it and return the proceeds from that sale to the program. If the hot tub can’t be sold in the store, they’ll find someone to give it to for free.
“We don’t want to just throw them away, so we’ve been finding homes for them with people who really need them but can’t afford one,” King says, adding that customers are excited to know their old hot tub can help someone. “The reaction of people when they hear that — the wife will grab the husband’s arm and say, ‘That’s what we’re going to do. We want to do that.’ ”
This idea of helping people with hot tubs is something King ingratiates into his business’ culture. Mountain Hot Tub operates from the perspective that it doesn’t just sell hot tubs, but they also make a difference in people’s lives.
“For hot tub companies, getting that into your employees’ head and into your head gives those employees a higher purpose,” King says. “It’s not just a job anymore. They have the satisfaction of knowing that what they do, whether it’s answering the phone, doing the bills, doing the service work, selling it, delivering it. All of that has a higher purpose, which is making a difference in people’s lives. Job satisfaction is at an all-time high since we started working from this point of view.”
So far, Hot Tubs for Health has helped a property manager with bad knees, whose wife suffers from rheumatoid arthritis. “They work really hard, but he couldn’t afford a hot tub,” King says. “We knew it would help. So we got him a hot tub, refurbished it and gave that to him.”
Also, a man’s chemotherapy cancer treatments were giving him neuropathy and a lot of pain. “He called and asked if we could get him a hot tub through Medicare, but I don’t work with Medicare,” King says. “So I said, ‘Let’s just give this guy a hot tub.’ So, we got him a hot tub.”
King’s wife Shelley has a background in law enforcement, and the couple has been involved with the local law enforcement community and charities for several years. Sponsored by the Association of Montana Troopers, The Montana Hope Project grants wishes to critically ill children, one of whom was 7-year-old Lena Brown. Brown was born without her corpus callosum, the middle part of the brain that integrates the left and right sides. She is also blind, suffers from epilepsy and has cerebral palsy. Brown’s grandmother, who adopted her in 2009, reached out to the Hope Project to see if she could get a hot tub, which Mountain Hot Tub was able to provide.
“This hot tub not only gives Lena freedom,” says Jeannie Brown, Lena’s grandmother. “It warms her cold limbs, soothes her aching muscles and will give her many years of pleasure. Lena’s stretching exercises can be done in the hot tub after her muscles have warmed up. She loves to have her neck ring on and let the jets spin her in circles. If she gets hung up on me, she will use her arms or legs to push off so she can continue to spin. It is so nice to see her relax. The look of pleasure on her beautiful face is amazing. We not only received this beautiful hot tub, but we also got an amazing outdoor lift to safely get Lena in and out of the hot tub.”
The charity held a media day and invited King to come watch Brown enjoy her hot tub. “It was very emotional,” King says. “We have a lot of fun selling hot tubs, and we know that they do people good. But to see that — it impacted everybody who was there. It was pretty humbling for all of us.”
That day King and the trooper in charge of the project noticed that what surrounded the hot tub could use some work. King donated Trex decking he had left over from a project, and the trooper got the shop class from the local high school to build a deck.
“That was a nice tangent off this project to see that the shop teacher wants these kids to get involved not only for the skills but also to give back,” King says.
King says these projects and programs like Hot Tubs for Health aren’t optional.
“As a business owner, you have a responsibility for that,” he says. “That community supports the business, we have a responsibility to support the community.”