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Cleveland’s Free Clinic to celebrate 40th birthday

What began as a tiny drop-in clinic for young people’s drug-related issues, has grown over 40 years into a vitally important community health resource in Northeast Ohio. As an original employee, Jim Young never dreamed the Free Clinic would last 40 years.

What began as a tiny drop-in clinic for young people’s drug-related issues, has grown over 40 years into a vitally important community health resource in Northeast Ohio.

The original front door from the Free Clinic’s original location, a former frat house on Cornell Road, now hangs on a wall in the Clinic’s current building on Euclid Avenue.

“We kind of carried it around with us as a good luck charm,” says Jim Young, who’s been with the Free Clinic since day one, and actually hand painted that original front door.

As an original employee, he never dreamed the Free Clinic would last 40 years.

“Our original view was that it would probably stretch out about five years, and then the medical community would recognize the need and come and meet it,” Young said.

“Obviously, we’re still here.”

In fact, the Free Clinic has done nothing but grow and expand over the decades. It moved from the rented house in 1974, and occupied several storefronts on Euclid Avenue.

By then, services included pre-natal, pediatric, psychiatric, and Greater Cleveland’s first runaway shelter. “There was a need in the community that was not being met,” says Don Messenger, a founding board member who is still actively volunteering with the Free Clinic.

“We had the volunteers that were ready, willing, and able to serve that need, and a very enlightened, giving community, from foundations to corporations, to the public.”

The coming decades would see the Free Clinic serve tens of thousands of people, and venture into needed areas, such as HIV-Aids treatment and a controversial needle exchange. Today, services, which are offered at a beautiful new facility on Euclid Avenue in the University Circle area, continue to expand and include full-service dental and other medical options.

“Now they come in because they have high blood pressure or heart disease or some chronic condition,” says Danny Williams, Executive Director. “And we need to make sure we continue to move in a direction that makes us successful to those folks.”

“We don’t judge people. If you’ve got a problem, our job is to help you get better.”

Underemployed and recently unemployed residents who have lost their medical coverage now avail themselves of the Free Clinic’s services. Among them is Editth Essex, who has been coming in for three years. “I am very grateful they have this place for people like me and other people that don’t have insurance,” she acknowledged.

Since 1970, that core mission of the Free Clinic has not changed, to be there, with quality healthcare free of charge, to those who have no alternative. Even with a budget of more than $3.5 million and over 50 employees, it’s still a challenge to fulfill that mission.

With need increased and economic conditions stagnant at best, the Free Clinic volunteers and staff hope their 40th birthday celebration, slated for Sunday, Oct. 17 at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, brings renewed awareness and support.

“You can’t go more than a few questions with somebody without there being a connection to the Free Clinic,” says Williams. “There’s about two degrees of separation with anyone you want to talk to.”

WKYC provides comprehensive media coverage of the business of health care in Cleveland. WKYC is also a MedCityNews syndication partner.

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