Northland News

Helping Hands Health and Wellness Center

Free clinic sees undiminished need for service

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In spite of the best of intentions or due to poor execution -- the jury is still very much out on which -- the Affordable Care Act has not ensured all Americans of adequate health care.

That was the assessment of Joyce Bourgault last week as she and volunteers at the Helping Hands Health and Wellness Center celebrated the seventh anniversary of the free clinic she founded initially as a ministry of Ascension Lutheran Church. Now its own separate nonprofit organization, the clinic operates Thursdays and Fridays at the Haimerl Center, 1421 Morse Road, on the church campus. The clinic opens at 2:30 p.m. on those days; closing times vary.

Far from being thrust to the sidelines by President Barack Obama's overhaul of health insurance, free clinics are thriving, Bourgault said, and that means many people aren't.

"Especially now with the Affordable Care Act, people think we don't need free clinics any more," she said. "Well, the opposite is the case. People who didn't get signed up are flocking to us.

"That's not counting the people who are here illegally," she added. "We don't see a lot of those and often don't know who they are. We don't want them walking the streets sick.

"We haven't seen a decrease at all."

Last week's birthday party, which stretched over two days, wasn't held to mark a major milestone, although Bourgault said lasting seven years was not a given when she and others launched Helping Hands.

Rather, the event was intended to honor the clinic's volunteers, some of whom have been on board from practically the beginning. They make it possible to offer free medical care and social services to the uninsured and adults who make less than 200 percent of federal poverty guidelines, Bourgault said.

They included people such as Lois Honacker, initially a patient and now the receptionist on clinic days.

"She's the first person people see when they walk in the door," Bourgault said. "She always has a smile on her face and tells people where to go. We count her as staff because she's here all the time."

Another volunteer feted during the celebration was Steve Thompson, who takes care of finances for Helping Hands and began volunteering during the clinic's second year. He "has been a huge part of the Northland community for a long time," Bourgault said of the former community council president.

"He's my right arm now," she said.

As a result of the perception that free clinics no longer serve a purpose, Bourgault said obtaining funding has become even more difficult.

"People say, 'Oh, everybody's got insurance,' so they stop giving," she said. "That's a message we're going to have to overcome for a while."

Helping Hands staff and volunteers are also seeking to fill the money gap by putting on a charity auction at the Haimerl Center on Tuesday, May 20.

Donations are being sought of items ranging from bicycles to books, to toys, dressers, glassware, antiques and even automobiles. Items of clothing will not be accepted.

The idea, Bourgault said, stemmed from the frequent use of the Haimerl Center for estate auctions and auctions of used restaurant equipment.

"We've been watching how these auctions produce," she said. "People come even when there aren't auctions to find out when the next one is going to be. We thought, 'that's the perfect opportunity for us to make money off of this' just by knowing people come anyway."

Auctioneer Bob Fagley is donating his services for the May 20 fundraising event.

Donated items may be dropped off at 1421 Morse Road from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Arrangements to have larger items picked up can be made by calling 614-262-5094.

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