Godsend in Chico
Local free clinic attends to the community’s needy
A trip to the Shalom Free Health Clinic is markedly different from a typical visit to the doctor’s office. This becomes apparent immediately upon stepping through the main entrance into a hallway-cum-triage center with patients lined against the wall, waiting their turn to receive services.
Every Sunday, the Congregational Church of Chico’s education building on East First Avenue is transformed into a makeshift medical facility and social-service center to meet the needs of the clinic’s clients—numbering 50 to 60 per week on average—who come to receive no-cost medical and psychiatric help, a warm meal and other assistance.
The first person you’re likely to meet at Shalom is 77-year-old Joe Lillis, who’s been greeting visitors for most of the clinic’s nearly six years of operation. Following Lillis’ directions is essential to navigating Shalom’s distinctly unclinical atmosphere.
“Take a number and your paperwork to the waiting room on the left there, have a bowl of chili or some cookies, and feel free to ask for any help you need or take a loaf of bread home if you’d like,” he repeated to five new visitors in as many minutes one recent Sunday. Lillis knows every fellow volunteer and a good number of patients by first name.
Another constant presence at Shalom is its director and co-founder, Nancy Morgans-Ferguson, a member of the church, who started the clinic when another parishioner expressed frustration at not being able to receive health care.
“Our philosophy is that everyone is welcome, everyone can come,” she said. “We’re here to serve and do the best we can for people who are uninsured and underinsured, or need any help. We don’t judge anybody, and there’s no hierarchy here.”
“Well there is one bit of hierarchy,” Lillis interjected. “She’s in charge!”
Indeed, Morgans-Ferguson is the glue that bonds the clinic together, and it’s no small accomplishment. It takes 35 volunteers to make it happen every Sunday and the personnel always changes. Morgans-Ferguson’s rundown of weekly staff includes “at least one doctor, three to six nurses, a couple of EMTs, a psychiatrist, two psychologists, marriage and family counselors, a nutritionist, an occasional attorney, four social workers, kitchen help, live music, nutritional counseling, follow-up nurses, Reiki, hypnosis, acupuncture and energy balancing twice monthly.
“We have a little bit of everything,” she said.
She explained that patients can also volunteer time to help clean the clinic or help other ways, though it’s not required: “Some people want to give and not take, so we offer them the opportunity to do that,” she said. “I think that’s pretty neat, because where else can you go see a doctor and pay for it by raking his leaves?”
Other than donations, the clinic does not accept any payment for services. Even if patients have insurance or government assistance, Morgans-Ferguson explained, the all-volunteer clinic lacks the infrastructure to do medical building.
The waiting room at the clinic is a converted classroom, recently decorated for the holidays with children’s crafts. The mood within was quite different from a typical waiting room: more lively, warmer and louder. Chico State University’s Community Legal Information Center or other organizations regularly set up here to offer their services. Cookies donated by Starbuck’s south Chico location were spread across a table next to boxes filled with bread, and Conner Wenzel served chili—a clear favorite among Shalom’s visitors, he noted—from a kitchen separated from the main room by a counter.
Wenzel explained that the Ritter family, members of the Congregational Church, cooks meals several weeks a month. The church itself feeds the clinic once monthly, and others occasionally volunteer to make the weekly meal for five dozen people.
Social workers, mostly interns from Chico State and other college programs, are also available to answer questions in the waiting room, and to help connect people to needed services. Lauren Haimowitz is a social-work intern assigned to the clinic via an online degree program through the University of Southern California. She said her work at the clinic has given her new perspectives on big issues like health care and homelessness.
“It opens your eyes to how many people need health insurance and the lack of services in the area,” she said. “We have people come all the way from Oregon, because we’re the only free health clinic anywhere near here.
“A lot of people assume it’s just homeless or unemployed people who come here, but that’s absolutely not true,” she continued. “Plenty of patients here work full time and don’t have insurance, or even if they have insurance they can’t afford their co-pay.
“I do intake here, and I meet a lot of very frustrated people with all kinds of horror stories. They ended up in the emergency room, and now they have a $4,000 bill that Medi-Cal and Social Security won’t help with. Or people come in with cancer or heart disease, all kind of terrible things, who have no help. Doctors and emergency rooms will give just enough immediate care so they don’t die, then leave them with no follow-up care, no maintenance, no preventative measures.”
Haimowitz and other social workers also provide services seven days a week from an office attached to Shalom’s downtown thrift store on First Street. Morgans-Ferguson noted that the thrift store is where the clinic could most use volunteers now.
“We have no funding whatsoever, but we have plenty of expenses,” she said. “The store pays for everything.”
Lisa Currier is a regular volunteer at the thrift store who started as a patient. She said she first visited the clinic for medical assistance seven months ago after joining the ranks of “those ‘displaced workers’ we all keep hearing so much about,” and was moved by what she found there.
“I’m eternally grateful to everyone at the clinic,” she said. “They are great people doing a great thing, and they helped me when I couldn’t get help anywhere else. I work here because I enjoy it, and I believe in the ‘pay it forward’ plan.”