by Jessica Carreras
FERNDALE – It’s 8:30 a.m. on Saturday, Aug. 21. Many Michiganders are still asleep after a long workweek, or just beginning to leisurely sip their morning coffee. But already, Ferndale’s Kulick Community Center is abuzz with action. Medical equipment, files and clipboards are shuffled inside. At least 20 people – some in civilian clothes, others in scrubs with stethoscopes hanging from their necks – rush around each other in a crowded hallway. Some have questions, while others have the answers. All are visibly busy.
No, this isn’t the scene of a medical emergency. But it’s just as urgent.
Quietly toiling, fundraising, spreading the word, gathering volunteers and equipment and knowledge, the FernCare free clinic – now two and a half years in the making – is finally open for business.
Continuing a lifelong commitment
For Board President Ann Heler, FernCare is the newest project in a series of commitments she has made to changing her hometown of Ferndale for the better. The 30-year resident and passionate supporter of LGBT rights began Friends and Neighbors of Ferndale with now Mayor Craig Covey in order to build relationships between the city’s gay residents and the greater community. She chaired the Hate Crimes Watch committee. She worked diligently to help pass the city’s non-discrimination ordinance.
Heler is, to put it simply, one of the founders of Ferndale’s gay community.
And now, she’s putting her well-known status and unrelenting do-gooder drive to yet another critical cause: providing health care to those who have none.
It was a logic next step, Heler insists.
“A group of us in Ferndale – the eight founding members of FernCare – are all pretty active and we were sitting around and wondering what else we could do to help in the city,” she shares. “We passed the human rights ordinance, … another group got the library updated. A lot of things happened here and so we asked, ‘What does it look like we need?’ Not two seconds later, out came ‘health.’ People are losing their health care. People don’t know where to go. And we looked at each other and said, ‘Let’s start a clinic.'”
Heler adds with a laugh, “And that was it!”
It wasn’t easy, Heler admits, especially since not one of the founding board members had any background in health care or the medical field. But somehow, they made it happen.
“Not one of us had experience in health care. This is truly a grassroots effort based on people seeing a need,” she says. “We do now, of course. We have a whole clinic team and people who sit on our board who are medical-based. But not when we started. We just decided we were going to do this.”
Opening a free clinic 101
With only their dream of helping in mind, Heler and her team wasted no time, starting by putting a call out to their connections and holding a public forum on the issue in late 2007. The support was palpable, says Heler. April 2008 marked their first official board meeting. Their first fundraiser, FernCare Makes Music, was held Nov. 13-15 of that year. In 2009, the board worked to secure a $150,000 federal grant to create their future home in an old Credit Union One warehouse.
And by this summer, with plans for the permanent clinic on hold as they awaited their promised federal funding, the FernCare Free Clinic could wait no longer.
Conditions at the Kulick Center aren’t ideal, but FernCare volunteers are making it work. Every first and third Saturday of the month – which began Aug. 7 with a ribbon-cutting ceremony and the first 12 patients – FernCare literally sets up, doles out health advice, tests and prescriptions and disappears by lunchtime.
Currently, they accept only non-emergency patients without insurance between the ages of 19 and 64. They provide maintenance care of chronic illnesses, to check-ups, diagnose and treat illnesses, dispense generic medications and make referrals for the services they cannot handle, such as dentistry or obstetrics.
It’s not all they’d like to do, and it’s certainly not enough to meet the need says Heler, adding that their appointments are completely booked through October.
“When we opened, there’s a southeast Michigan free clinic organization and they told us, ‘You’re going to be full in five weeks,'” recalls Heler. “We were full in 11 days. There were 12 people (at the first clinic) and not one of them was frivolous. Not one of them. Everybody agreed that the 12 that came in absolutely needed to come in.”
The very first of those clients was Waterford resident Sara Martin. Unemployed for over a year and uninsured, Martin “was thrilled to death” to hear that FernCare was opening.
“There’s a huge need – especially when it comes to LGBT people here in the Ferndale area,” Martin says. “A lot of them face a lot of discrimination in all methods. In order for us to have anything, FernCare is very welcome in the neighborhood.”
And as an openly transgender woman, Martin was thrilled to meet doctors and staff who treated her with dignity and respect. “It was wonderful,” she says of her first visit. “Everybody had a smile, everybody was happy to see me. The bedside manner here far exceeds a traditional doctor’s office. It’s really something.”
The positive attitudes and willingness of so many doctors, nurses and local residents to help make FernCare happen, says Heler, is due mostly to the fact that they all understand the dire need for such a service. “(A lack of health care) is something that affects a lot of people,” she says. “It’s not correct, what’s happening now, and maybe we can do a little bit. And I think we can. And I think we are.”
Lynn Rimer, a registered nurse from Henry Ford Hospital, understands completely.
Years ago, Rimer found herself raising four children with no health care for herself or her kids. She lived her life in fear. “I know the terror I woke up with every morning that something would happen – to me or one of my kids – and I would not be able to address it,” she explains. “Of course, you’re going to do what you need to do and mop up the mess later, but that’s really just a horrible way to have to live your life.”
And Rimer doesn’t want anyone else to have to go through the same experience. So when she heard about FernCare and found herself able to help, she jumped at the chance. “I’ve gotten a lot and I have the ability to give back and the time to give back,” Rimer says. “I hope it’s a relief for (the clients), and I know it will be because I stood in their shoes.”
The future of FernCare
As Heler and her team wait to receive the federal funding to complete construction of the permanent FernCare Free Clinic, plans will move forward to keep those in need coming in to the clinic at the Kulick Center – and hopefully, to keep expanding to include more days of service, more programming and enough fundraising to carry them beyond the funds they have now, which should keep the clinic open for one year.
From December 2009-April 2010, FernCare also offered a once-monthly series of educational seminars called Let’s Talk Health, where medical professionals would cover a variety of topics, including asthma, diabetes, massage, the health benefits of gardening and more. Heler hopes to start that series up again in October.
And, because she knows all too well that the few existing free clinics cannot begin to cover all those in need, she hopes that seeing how FernCare came together will inspire others to start free clinics in their own hometowns.
“It’s just been one of those things that people should hear 100 times: You can do things,” she insists. “It’s not that it didn’t require a lot, because it did, but it can be done.”
“How we did this is not complicated,” Heler continues. “I’m sure anyone (starting a free clinic) would get a lot of support because people understand – there are people who have nothing, people who don’t have their meds, people who live in pain because they don’t have any money and they can’t go anywhere because they can’t take on anymore debt. So they live with it.”
But with the help of free clinics like FernCare, hopefully they won’t have to.
FernCare is still in need of medical and non-medical volunteers, as well as donations. To learn more about how you can help, or to make an appointment, visit http://www.FernCare.org , or call 248-677-2273.