Have you ever noticed the bold black and white sign flapping against the bricks on the old Olympia City Hall and Fire Station? The Olympia Free Clinic sign is poised between the signs for the Family Support Center and South Sound YMCA child care facility. It is obvious this building provides an important bridge to needed services in our community.
On Wednesday and Thursday evenings, residents enter the side door just off Capitol Way on State Street in desperate need of medical care. Head up a flight of stairs and you will be amazed by the services offered by the Olympia Free Clinic. Staffed entirely by volunteers, except for the multi-tasking director, Paula Rauen, the clinic is kept alive by generous benefactors.
Shortly after The Lacey Free Clinic closed in 2009, work began to establish the Olympia Free Clinic as a nonprofit. After a brief time at another location, the Olympia Free Clinic found a home in this welcoming historic building.
“On May 25, 2011, two days after the clinic opened here, I stepped in as Executive Director,” Paula Rauen said with a smile. “The operation has been evolving and expanding ever since.” After 26 years working at Community Youth Services and three years sailing around the world with her husband, Paula obviously enjoys the daily tasks of organizing and supporting the 250 volunteers who have contributed almost 15,000 hours to the clinic since its inception.
“After the first year of operations, we changed to two consecutive nights of service,” Paula told me. ”We realized how difficult it was for the patients who couldn’t be scheduled one night to wait several days to come back. We are always making adjustments in order to serve as many clients as possible.”
Since the Union Gospel Mission closed their Chronic Care Clinic in 2014, the caseload at the Olympia Free Clinic has increased. It is now open to both chronic and acute patients. “The good news is more patients are insured under the Affordable Care Act but the bad news is many are also underinsured or hampered by huge deductibles,” explained Paula.
After a patient has registered, a triage nurse prepares an intake form. At least two physicians and two nurses staff the clinic. Patients either self-refer or are directed to the clinic by Department of Social and Health Service caseworkers. The clinic is open to anyone 18 or older. Most evenings a Spanish language interpreter is available.
Here is just one story about how patients are served by the Olympia Free Clinic. A middle-aged woman who had no insurance heard about the clinic after a lump on her neck had been growing for many months. Indeed, as she feared, it was malignant. Paula unpinned her thank you letter to the Clinic from a wall of such letters and, the woman’s gratitude was boundless. “You saved my life,” she said.
Patients like this woman are grateful for the many doctors, nurses, and staff who served them. However they may not realize the depth of support from other medical facilities in the area.
“A recent contribution from Capital Medical Center was so important to our continued work,” Paula emphatically stated. “We are extremely grateful for their staff’s generosity.”
That donation along with in-kind contributions from other health care companies for free pap smears, lab work and imaging, and by the Union Gospel Mission for accepting referrals to their dental and vision program keep the work of the clinic moving. Approximately 90 patients receive medical examinations each month.
Last August, a grant allowed the Olympia Free Clinic to open a Mental Health Access program, which is so important for the population they serve. The Clinic supports about 24 sessions of mental health counseling a month.
Each patient seen in the clinic has an exit interview with a social worker before discharge. Patients then are assessed for future needs and often referred to other agencies.
In addition to working with the volunteer coordinator, Paula also writes grants, works with other non-profit groups, and seeks donations from neighborhood businesses and professionals.
“Most of our volunteers come right after leaving work,” according to Paula. “Having food for them before they start their shift is crucial.” Recently the volunteers have been enjoying treats from Old School Pizzeria, Bagel Brothers, Bread Peddler, and Blue Heron Bakery.
Our volunteers are so caring. “We very often heal the spirit as well as the physical well being of a patient,” Paula told me. “In assessing the quality of respect and courtesy exhibited by the staff at the clinic, the patients rate them 90% and above.”
When the staff at Capital Medical Center chose the Olympia Free Clinic as the recipient of their recent staff fundraiser, they must have known more about the amazing work of the clinic than a casual passerby. Not everyone in Thurston County can contribute by volunteering, but everyone can enjoy an evening of Wine and Jazz at the Clinics’ Annual Fundraiser on June 6 at Albee’s Garden. Be there and join the many others who work to keep this community asset alive and well.
The Olympia Free Clinic is open Wednesday and Thursday evenings from 5:30 – 8:00 p.m.