On vacation more than two years ago, Joyce Bourgault said a conversation with God led her to explore a new ministry.

On vacation more than two years ago, Joyce Bourgault said a conversation with God led her to explore a new ministry.

"I felt God was calling me in a new direction," Bourgault said.

Back from vacation, Bourgault, then the business manager for Ascension Lutheran Church, began talking to members of the church about what they felt was most needed in the community.

"They just repeatedly said health care," Bourgault said. "That's a pretty obvious one if you just talk to people and watch the news."

So in April 2007, Bourgault and a group of volunteers held the first free clinic at the Helping Hands Health and Wellness Center, set up in Ascension Lutheran Church's Haimerl Center, 1479 Morse Road.

Since the first clinic was held nearly two years ago, Helping Hands has provided medical care to more than 1,500 people from 35 central Ohio zip codes. The clinic has grown to include a benefit bank to help people find programs they're eligible for, dental care, a pharmacy, a program to help clients purchase medication and a variety of other services.

At the clinic, which is held twice a month, volunteer doctors, nurses and others aim to serve around 40 people, Bourgault said.

"It's gotten huge, and the need has just really expanded," she said. "There are a lot of people who have lost their jobs."

For her work in establishing Helping Hands, Bourgault, who now serves as the center's executive director, is being recognized as one of 20 central Ohio nominees for the 2009 Jefferson Awards, a national awards program that recognizes people who make a positive impact on their communities.

Five of those 20 will be named winners in a ceremony on April 1. Of those five, one will be selected to travel to the national awards in Washington, D.C., later this year. Five winners will be named on the national level.

Bourgault's plans for Helping Hands continue to grow. She recently received a grant, in collaboration with other central Ohio groups, including the YMCA, that will teach low-income families how to be healthier, leading them to need less medical care.

"We're working on how can we expand our capabilities," Bourgault said.

jnesbitt@thisweeknews.com