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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. 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, Houghton shared that “the vast majority are the working poor.”

Beth Houghton, Executive Director at SPFC
Beth Houghton, Executive Director at SPFC

The United States healthcare system is notoriously the most expensive in the world. Even more disturbing, the U.S. also ranks dead last for developed nations in better health outcomes over time, according to The Commonwealth Fund. In addition, Census Bureau statistics show that Florida is among the states with the highest percentage of uninsured citizens. While it is easy to point fingers at the causes of these travesties, there’s 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 unassumingly on the corner of MLK Jr. St. and 3rd Ave. North. Passers 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, over 70 doctors and nurses, one nurse practitioner, and 400 other volunteers work with 48 paid staff members to attend to and restore the health of the community.

A recent Florida Blue Foundation grant now allows the SPFC to offer a denture service to the community. Gina Ruiz, Director of Communications for the clinic, relays a touching story about 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, its mission extends to advocacy and beyond. Walk in and you can access a number of fliers that keep you up-to-date on their mobile medical unit, refer you to other valuable services, and let you know the date and time of their next Health Education Learning Series session.

Most impressive is the clinic’s holistic approach to meeting the community’s 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 learn how to obtain birth certificates, identification cards, and temporary assistance with water bills and food. With one in seven citizens of Pinellas County unable to purchase enough to eat, the food assistance is a gem on its own.

The clinic’s food programs focus on everything from elderly assistance to end-of-the-month food for individuals and families who just can’t make that paycheck stretch. In

St Petersburg Free Clinic
St Petersburg Free Clinic

fact, the volume of food distributed by SPFC’s programs has doubled in recent years. With needs quickly outgrowing their current location, Houghton wanted to act fast.

Several months ago, Houghton sat down with community member Bonnie Hechtkopf to address a problem: namely that the drop-off and distribution of food in the same location was impeding the productivity of the warehouse in the back. The location of the loading dock in a public alley, too close to the limited parking for the rest of the clinic’s services, wasn’t ideal. Hechtkopf saw solving this problem as the 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 its 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 accessibility to a nearby bus line. However, these aren’t the issues a distribution warehouse needs to focus on. Food collection and distribution will soon be fulfilled at the warehouse, which can be easily accessed via U.S. 19 and I-275. The warehouse is scheduled to open in January of next year.

Make a Difference:

St. Petersburg Free Clinic is always looking for volunteers. If you’re a dentist, doctor, nurse or just want to lend a helping hand, consider donating one or two hours a month. 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 Oct. 7 at 11:45 a.m. This year’s event will benefit the Pack-A-Sack program, which provides food for the weekend for hungry kids.

Tags : Issue 01-16September 2016Volume 1
Nicole Brand

The author Nicole Brand

Nicole had her first interview article published in 2005 in Mirror Images, her high school student-run newspaper and her first literary works published in the student anthology that same year. As a senior, she served as the editor for the student-run anthology the following year. She then went on to earn a Bachelor of Arts in Communications and she fell in love with writing about all things related to food. Upon completion of her undergraduate, she moved out to Hawaii where she worked for the Honolulu Weekly until they went on hiatus. Soon after, she moved to the other side of the Pacific and worked as a freelance copy editor for a branding firm in Auckland, New Zealand before returning to the United States. She now works as a freelance writer for the Green Bench Monthly in St. Petersburg, Florida as she completes her Masters of Science in Food Systems.