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It Takes A Village
It’s easy to fall into the mindset that people who don’t have enough to eat or can’t
afford healthcare must have made terrible choices. However, a quick chat with a
staff member or volunteer at the St. Petersburg Free Clinic (SPFC) or even a glance
at their website might leave you questioning your assumptions. One medical bill,
chronic illness, or crappy boyfriend could leave you in temporary hard times with
few options to turn to. Beth Houghton, Executive Director at SPFC, helped to
challenge my perception of this demographic. While the free clinic certainly does
attend to the St. Petersburg homeless, Beth shared that “the vast majority are the
The US healthcare system is notoriously the most expensive in the world. Maybe
more disturbing, the US also ranks dead last for developed nations in better health
outcomes over time.1 Between the 50 states, Florida doesn’t do much to outperform
her fellow states. She ranks among the highest for states with the most uninsured
citizens.2 And while it is easy to point fingers and make cases for the causes of these
travesties, there is a glistening silver lining in this storm. While local and federal
governments continue to argue over who is responsible, one organization continues
to shine its humanitarian light.
The St. Petersburg Free Clinic sits unassuming on the corner of MLK and 3rd Ave N.
Those who pass by might never guess the immense amount of time, effort, and
volunteers that course through the veins of this old building. In any given month, 35
doctors and nurses, 1 nurse practitioner, and 400 other volunteers work with 16
paid staff members to aid and restore the health of the community. A recent Florida
Blue Foundation grant now allows the expansion of a denture service for the
community. Gina Ruiz, the Director of Communications for the clinic, relays a story
of witnessing a patient’s “first smile” after spending a lifetime in the service industry
turning his head away from his customers—afraid to face them as he spoke.
Not only does the clinic do its best to meet immediate health needs, their mission
extends to advocacy and beyond. Walk in and you can pull from a number of fliers
that keep you up-to-date on their mobile medical unit, refer you other services, and
let you know when the next Health Education Learning Series session is.
Most impressive is the clinic’s full picture approach to meeting needs. Instead of
offering a single solution, the We Help services at the clinic focus on the complex
nature of poverty and its effects in a multitude of areas. Families and individuals can
receive advising in obtaining birth certificates, identification cards and temporary
assistance with water bills and food—and with 1 in 7 citizens of Pinellas County
unable to purchase enough to eat, the food assistance is a shining gem on its own.
Food programs focus on everything from elderly assistance to end of the month food
for individuals and families that just can’t make that paycheck stretch. In fact, the
volume of food distributed by the clinic’s programs has doubled in recent years.
With the needs of the community quickly outgrowing their current location, Beth
needed to act fast.
Several months ago, Beth sat down with community member Bonnie Hechtkopf. As
many at the clinic saw it, having the drop-off and distribution in the same location
impeded the productivity of the warehouse in the back. Having the dock in a public
alley and close to the limited parking for the rest of the clinic’s services wasn’t ideal.
Bonnie realized this was a perfect way to memorialize her late husband and the idea
of a better warehouse was born.
The new warehouse is located in Lealman and since the clinic’s food pantry requires
a tremendous amount of coordination for their deliveries, the 14,000-square-foot
location is perfect. SPFC is used to thinking about location. With the clinic and the
pantry, SPFC must consider the small things like whether a bus line is nearby.
However, these aren’t the same issues a distribution warehouse needs to focus on.
Programs like Pack-A-Sack and Hearty Homes will soon be fulfilled at the warehouse
where donated food can be easily accessed by U.S. 19 and I-275. The warehouse is
scheduled to open in January next year.
Make a Difference: St. Petersburg Free Clinic is always looking for volunteers. If
you’re a dentist, consider donating 1-2 hours a month and become a part of the new
denture program made possible by a grant from the Florida Blue Foundation.
Visit the St. Petersburg Free Clinic at 863 3rd Ave. N. For more information, call 727-
821-1200 or visit www.stpetersburgfreeclinic.org.
Upcoming Events: The clinic’s 37th annual hunger action event at the Coliseum is
coming up on October 7th at 11:45am. This year’s event will benefit the Pack-A-Sack
program that provides food for the weekend for hungry kids.