In my years as editor of the Culpeper Times, while we’ve listed events and covered fund raisers, I hadn’t actually been into the building that houses Culpeper’s Free Clinic on Laurel Street near the hospital.
I wanted to go over there and visit with their new Executive Director Chris Miller as I’ve known her primarily in her capacity with Aging Together.
She’s wearing a new hat now and I thought it would be interesting to see how that is going.
With just about six weeks in, she’s clearly found a path with a very good heart. True to her nature, her focus was not on herself but the staff that she is becoming to know better and better each day.
“They’re amazing…what they do here is incredible,” she told me of a facility that prides itself on being the primary health care source for hundreds in Culpeper.
A great fan of Susan Keller, the director at the Culpeper County Library, Chris envisions the clinic garnering the same reputation…a place where many connections are made and fostered.
We chatted about what a great resource the library is…that it is so much more than books…that it has become a community center of sorts where people can come and meet, share resources, learn about other services in the community and usually leave not only better informed but inspired.
Started in 1997 by a grassroots effort of local physicians and concerned citizens, Culpeper’s Free Clinic is growing and blossoming as it approaches 20 years.
Since the first of the year, 345 people have been served with 55 new patients. Chris wants that number to grow. There are still a lot of misconceptions out there about just who can walk in the door and be helped with their healthcare needs.
There are three criteria: No insurance, live in Culpeper and meet poverty income guidelines.
So you can be employed and still receive health care. It just depends on how much you make or how little.
Several doctors, dentists, optometrists, therapists and nurses volunteer their time at the clinic but there are nurses and nurse practitioners on staff who can prescribe medications, give out referrals for other services, and take care of screenings and perform examinations.
“I want the free clinic to be that kind of place…that place in the community where people know that they can come for good health care,” Chris told me as her face radiated with excitement, energy and enthusiasm for a professional home that is clearly personal for her. All of her work with Aging Together pointed her in a direction where she could work directly with the caregivers…those on the front lines of health care. She’s there now and loving it.
“It’s good to challenge yourself with something new,” she told me as she explained how they are part of the Culpeper Wellness Foundation and also get some state funding as well as donations. The clinic’s proximity to the hospital and emergency care is key to their success. Lab work is done there.
It hasn’t always been there but tucked in one corner of the parking lot is a small garden. Chris told me that it is lovingly taken care of by one of their volunteers Brenda Sheffield. She smiled telling me about conversations she’d heard recently in the office about beets. Coming in with fresh beets from the garden, Brenda shared cooking tips with patients that were there. Patients left with small bags of beets. It’s this kind of community connecting that Chris looks to grow and nurture.
I thought I had soaked up about all the good energy that is possible for an afternoon until I decided to chat with some of the staff. It was an afternoon where no patients would be coming through the doors so we were relaxed.
I don’t want to get too emotional or syrupy sweet but these women are, as Chris said, remarkable. Cheery, positive, caring, upbeat and so committed to what they are doing. What a credit to the Culpeper community to have this talented, skilled and compassionate group of women in one place with one focus. I was humbled.
Hailing from the Department of Social Services, Susan Andrick is perhaps the veteran with some 15 years of service.
“I’m here because I want to be here…I wouldn’t be anywhere else,” she told me. Heidi Wayland fondly remembers a homeless woman they helped who was living in her car at the time. The staff contribute as they are able to a slush fund. They decided to give this woman a small amount of money to pay for medications.
“We had given her five dollars for a four dollar purchase…I was so surprised when she returned with the dollar in change.”
“That’s why we’re here,” was a resounding theme from all of the women who have chosen to help those in the greatest need of help.
Bernadette Focazio is originally from New York where her primary focus was working with bone marrow. Now entrenched in primary care, she is sought after by many of the patients who regard her as their doctor and only want to see her.
Undoubtedly the cheerleader for the group is Annette Aluzas. She is also the first face you’ll see as you enter and are greeted. “We don’t want anyone to be intimidated,” she said, “we want people to come…this is what we are here for.”
The place has the look and feel of any doctor’s office. There are charts about obesity and heart ailments.
Kelly Bennett handles most of the referrals. That’s another thing that I find so intriguing and special about this place. They are looking to address the needs of the whole person. Perhaps the patient needs a job or to learn to read or a place to live. Collectively, as a team, they’ll pull from their combined resources to help that person. Their approach is wholistic in practice and heart.
Joyce Baez wants people to know that there is a safe place, a sanctuary where they can come for health needs. “Lots of joys and sorrows are shared here,” she said.
Graduation from the clinic is bittersweet. Graduation means that perhaps you’ve gotten a job that includes health benefits, you are now 65 and eligible for Medicare or your spouse is able to cover you. The ladies smiled acknowledging that many don’t want to leave but they help by making that transition easier. They’ll often connect with the new physician and help with the process.
Visiting the Free Clinic, catching up with Chris and meeting these women was a gift. It’s a happy place, a healthy place and a caring corner of Culpeper to be cherished.