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'Life line' in dire straits

Willa Carson Health Resource Center's financial woes could shut the free clinic.

By Demorris A. Lee, Times Staff Writer
Published March 13, 2008


Jan Weatherby, left, and Verna Evans work the front desk at Willa Carson Health center. The free clinic is $40,000 in debt and might have to close. "Tears would be coming from her eyes right now," said a resident of nurse Willa Carson, the clinic's founder.
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[Atoyia Deans | Times]
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[Atoyia Deans | Times]
Juanita Goodwin and her husband, Bob, wait for treatment at Willa Carson Health center.

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[Atoyia Deans | Times]
Doris West, left, discusses Venante Jean-Michel's condition with her granddaughter (not pictured). For many this is the only affordable care in the area.

CLEARWATER

Karen Smith works as an in-home nursing assistant, but she says she can't afford health insurance.

So Smith, 53, drives from St. Petersburg to the Willa Carson Health Resource Center in the North Greenwood community to get physicals and other preventive health care.

"This place is the heartbeat of the community," said Smith, who recently moved from Clearwater to St. Petersburg. "It doesn't matter who you are, where you've been, what you've got, they take you. Without this place, we would be lost."

Testimonies abound about the value of the Willa Carson Health Resource Center, but the small, popular, free clinic is on financial life-support.

If an infusion of cash isn't received soon, the clinic, founded in 1995 by registered nurse Willa Carson to provide health care to the poor, could close in three months.

"To see what Mrs. Carson worked so hard for, to get this far and see these doors close, I just don't want to see that," said Annie Tyrell, RN, the center's director. "In today's economic environment there's going to be a lot of people losing insurance and a place like this is a life line."

Carson, who died in 2006 at age 80, worked tirelessly in the late years of her life to keep the clinic going. She started it by giving free blood pressure checks and treating common colds out of two apartments in North Greenwood.

As word spread, so did her patient base. She talked other health care professionals into volunteering, seeing the clinic as a way to make health care, especially preventive health care, accessible to Clearwater's African-American community.

In 2001, she expanded into larger quarters at 1108 N Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. The clinic, which has four examination rooms, managed to open five days and treat 7,000 people a year when patient care peaked in 2005.

Now, it's a different story. The clinic is open three days a week and sees about 4,000 patients a year. And it's $40,000 in the red.

"Tears would be coming from her eyes right now," said Talmadge Rutledge, a lifelong North Greenwood resident who witnessed Carson's efforts, which earned her a Governor's Points of Light Award and the Silver Medallion Humanitarian honor from National Conference for Community and Justice in 2005.

* * *

The clinic's leaders are desperately seeking funding, but with a queasy economy and uncertain local government spending, nonprofit organizations such as the clinic face challenging times.

The center has just $10,000 in cash. Its leaders are considering cuts to the clinic's $250,000 yearly budget

In May, Gov. Charlie Christ vetoed a line-item in the state's budget that would have funneled $50,000 to the clinic. The Pinellas County government gave the clinic $22,000 for this year's operations but is considering a 20 percent cut next budget year.

The city of Clearwater gave the clinic $45,000 over the last two years, but the federal grant that provided that money has been reduced, so the city might have to cut back its contribution too.

"At a time when everyone's budgets are being decreased, organizations should look for ways to consolidate services or look at doing things together or to close their doors," said Gerri Campos Lopez, Clearwater's Economic Development and Housing director. "Nonprofits are going to have to take a hard look at themselves."

The folks at the clinic are trying to find new revenue. A fundraiser banquet in 2006 netted $40,000. But last year's banquet, though well attended, brought in about $20,000.

Tyrell has applied grants. Tuesday, she received bad news from the Susan G. Koman Breast Cancer Foundation. A $15,000 request was denied. Last year, the foundation came through with that amount.

The second annual Walk for Willa will be April 19. Last year, the event raised $14,000.

Office manager Verna Evans, 65, has worked at the clinic since 1999, back when it was based in the two apartments. She said the clinic survived hard times before. This time, she is trying to imitate her longtime friend, Willa Carson.

"She would have faith," Evans said. "Her faith was strong and I think that's what kept the place open all this time. She just believed that God opened these doors and no man can close them. I'm still believing in the same thing."

Demorris A. Lee can be reached at 445-4174 or dalee@sptimes.com.

Fast facts

Willa Carson Health Resource Center

Hours of operation: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays; 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays. For appointments, call (727) 467-9411.

 

[Last modified March 12, 2008, 22:28:03]


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