Community that cares

Programs like the Shalom Free Clinic help the underinsured and underserved

Mike Jensen gets his blood pressure taken by local paramedic Mark Walker at the Shalom Free Clinic.

Mike Jensen gets his blood pressure taken by local paramedic Mark Walker at the Shalom Free Clinic.

Photo By Alan Sheckter

The economy is down, unemployment is up and health-care costs continue to rise. So what are people who’ve been recent victims of health-care loss—as well as the chronically indigent who may at best have Medi-Cal, which most for-profit physicians refuse to treat due to the laborious process and low reimbursement rates—supposed to do?

One area clinic that shoulders the burden of providing physical and mental health care by servicing local uninsured and underinsured individuals is the Shalom Free Clinic in Chico, at which the medical professionals donate their time.

“The message here is, ‘Welcome, how can I help?’” said Executive Director and co-founder Nancy Morgans-Ferguson, who puts in more than 50 hours a week as the clinic’s administrator, volunteer coordinator and thrift-store manager.

Without its own dedicated home, the Shalom Free Clinic sort of materializes shortly after noon every Sunday at what is otherwise the Congregational Church of Chico. On one recent Sunday, not long before the clinic’s 1 p.m. start time, the weekly transition took place. The clinic’s humble belongings—two portable sinks, patient files, and other assorted supplies—were wheeled into place as temporary clinic signs went up around the church and the adjacent Chico Nursery School.

With the addition of two portable tables, a rolling chalkboard that becomes a privacy divider, and positive attitudes, the church’s library, for instance, quickly turned into an two-station acupuncture clinic. By 1 p.m., a medical doctor, physician’s assistant, registered nurse, psychologist, pediatric psychiatrist, marriage and family therapist, paramedic, acupuncturist and a representative from Chico State’s Community Legal Information Center were all in place. A nutritionist, normally present, was not available on this particular Sunday.

Medical Health Coordinator Karen Kushner, who said she is extremely grateful to the church for providing the clinic a rent-free location, also said that the clinic’s biggest wish is for a new home.

“The vision is,” she said, pointing to physical activity taking place around her, an exercise that is repeated every Sunday, “that we have a building so that we don’t have to do this anymore.”

When asked why she not only provides free medical care every Sunday, but also takes part in the drudgery of setting up her exam room each week, Kushner, a clinic co-founder, was quick to reply.

“This was a dream of mine since I became a PA,” she said. “I went to a similar one in Tucson, and I said if I can ever do this, I would.”

Once the clinic is open, dozens of patients, who wait patiently outside for a wide array of services, file in to get help that they cannot find elsewhere. They are treated with compassion, acceptance and respect, and guided into a waiting room that offers warmth, hot beverages, a modest potluck table, and an acoustic guitar player who adds to the hospitable atmosphere.

From the waiting area, patients are led to a physical- or mental-health triage station, at which patient concerns are voiced in order to guide them to the correct on-hand professional. An exit nurse is available to speak to patients after they are treated to make sure they understand what advice they were given or if they have any follow-up questions or concerns.

Guided by a mission to provide underinsured and uninsured adults and children with a wide arrange of care free of charge, the Shalom Free Clinic “greeters” ask only what patients need, not how they are going to pay. In fact, the clinic tries to keep a supply of $5 gift cards to help the indigent pay for generic prescriptions. No credit card machine or insurance questionnaires are even present. What is present is a place for underserved members of the community to receive a variety of basic care.

Mary Louise Boughie is one such patient.

“I saw a commercial on TV and I came in,” she said while arranging waiting-room chairs just before the clinic opened, one of the “giving back” duties she performs as a volunteer. “I was drinking too much, had diabetes, emotional problems. They worked with me and I got well.”

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Morgans-Ferguson said she originally thought the clinic, which is now coming up on three years of operation, would primarily serve the homeless. Instead, “it’s a group we never thought we’d see,” she said. “A typical patient is someone 45 to 65, many with some college. Some have recently lost their jobs and they’ve never been in this place [in their lives]. Their way of life is crumbling and they don’t know how to get services; we offer problem solving, referrals and education.”

Co-sponsored by the church as well as Chico Havurah, a Jewish congregation that meets at the church twice monthly, the Shalom Free Clinic thrives on a donation-dependent shoestring budget, along with the will, the spirit and volunteer services of many area medical professionals. While some local businesses, individuals, and churches donate to the cause, as does Direct Relief USA—as well as operating a thrift store at 250 E. First St. in Chico—the Shalom Free Clinic is strictly no frills.

What they do have are people: medical professionals who give up personal time on their Sundays and leave their hourly rates and egos at the door, just to ease human suffering, one person at a time.

Some helpful links

Where to go when you need care

• Butte County Public Health, Chico Clinic 695 Oleander Ave., Chico, 879-3665,

• Butte County Public Health, Oroville Clinic 78 Table Mountain Blvd., Oroville, 538-7341,

• Chico State Student Health Center (for enrolled students) Chico State University, 898-5241,

• Del Norte Clinic, Chico Family Health Center and Dentistry 680 Cohasset Road, Chico, 342-4395,

• Del Norte Clinic, Oroville Family Health Center and Dentistry 2800 Lincoln, Oroville, 534-7500,

• Del Norte Clinic, Gridley Family Health Center 50 Kentucky St., Gridley, 846-6231,

• Enloe Children’s Health Center 277 Cohasset Road, Chico, 332-6000,

• Feather River Health Center/Canyon View Clinic 5125 Skyway, Paradise, 872-2000,

• Feather River Tribal Health 2145 Fifth Ave., Oroville, 534-5394,

• Magalia-Pines Family Medical Clinic 14662 Skyway, Magalia, 873-1676,

• Northern Valley Indian Health 845 W. East Ave., Chico, 896-9400,

• Shalom Free Clinic 1190 E. First Ave., Chico, 518-8300,

For more information, log onto, a searchable directory of low-cost and no-cost Butte County health and human services.