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“Prayers, people, and generosity”

The Matthew 25 medical clinic marks 30 years

By Gloria Diaz

Fort Wayne Reader


On this Tuesday afternoon, there are a dozen people in the waiting room of Matthew 25, a full-time medical clinic offering free services. A man gets up from his chair to go outside for a cigarette. Independence Day plays on the waiting room television set. On the dental side of the waiting room, there are snatches of conversation. Those on the medical side of the room seem engrossed in the movie. Somewhere in Matthew 25, a phone is constantly ringing.

In the mornings before the clinic opens, 20 to 30 patients are lined up on the metal bench outside the building. Perhaps ironically, the waiting area outside the building also doubles as a smoking shelter with signs urging smokers to dispose of their cigarettes properly. Once the clinic opens its doors, patients stand in line to sign in. It’s better if you have an appointment card; you’ll have a better chance of getting in sooner. The seating area is a mixture of various styles of chairs and what could only be described as waiting room style couches. People sitting shoulder to shoulder, manage to sleep, watch television or read the wide selection of reading material at the clinic.

That’s just the waiting room version of perhaps an hour’s worth of observation at the clinic. There IS no typical day at Matthew 25. And that proved alluring to Nancy Schenkel, Matthew 25’s administrator. When she got the position, she asked what a typical day was like. The board of directors burst out laughing. It’s one of the things she likes about Matthew 25.

* * *

The clinic opened its doors May 1, 1976. That Matthew 25 is 30 years old is a reason to celebrate. Free clinics open up, but they are hard to sustain. The bottom line: money. Well, it’s not entirely the bottom line. Four hundred volunteers help out at Matthew 25. There are 34 staff members. And there is the support of the community, which has helped with donations of money, time and equipment.

Ted Kurek, one of the original founders of Matthew 25, is a board member as well as a volunteer. He was part of the original prayer group back in 1975 that decided there was a need in the community for health care. He and others met at St. Mary’s Catholic Church. The group talked about the gospel and what they were doing; Father Tom O’Connell, who was there that night, spoke up and said he ran the soup kitchen, but there were also people who came to his back door who were sick.

Kurek discovered a study that had been done seven or eight years before in Fort Wayne’s inner city regarding health care, but nothing was ever done. “It was a faith thing,” recalls Kurek. “Basically, start a clinic, and if nobody showed up, they were right. We were told a clinic like this was not needed. And that everyone was taken care of.”

There were two properties available for purchase. At the time, Kurek was involved with a group devoted to non-violence. In an ironic twist, 1119 Clay Street was formerly the home of Rose DeWood, who had been murdered in the early 1970s. DeWood’s former home became the Center for Non-Violence, and the property next door became the clinic. Different groups helped renovate the two-bedroom, two story home. However, the clinic needed a doctor. “One doctor in the city of Fort Wayne said he’d come down and volunteer,” says Kurek. “And if nobody showed up, he said he was going home.”

Kurek says when asked who founded the clinic, he usually responds, “God.” However, if you want a more mortal answer, Kurek says Foaud Hallby is the person. “He came down and right away he started trying to get another doctor to come down,” says Kurek.

From there, and from the clinic’s first three patients, the facility has grown. “To me, the clinic has always been prayers, people and money,” says Kurek. “God is the source, people are the instruments; money is the reality. It’s a faith-based organization.”

The current building, which was the Manpower building, became available and was purchased without any operating funds. Two weeks before the closing was due, Matthew 25 was $35,000 short. A week later, the money was there. And it’s private money. The clinic continues to be privately funded.

In the past four years, the clinic has seen substantial growth, primarily due to downsizing. As the unemployed become the uninsured (in the U. S. there are approximately 47 million people without some form of health insurance) Matthew 25 has seen more people walk through its doors. People who never thought they’d rely on services from a clinic are realizing that help is there from a source they probably didn’t know existed.

The clients, for the most part, work. They may be blue collar or white collar, but they are in the workforce on either a full-time or part-time basis. Because many businesses don’t offer insurance, or require its employees to pay for coverage that in a lot of cases isn’t affordable, people affected by that are the ones who come into Matthew 25. The clinic hasn’t kept track of those clients who once had health insurance at their jobs and lost it, but it might make for interesting (and overwhelming) reading someday.

Not very many children come into the clinic, partly because the Hoosier Healthwise program usually covers children if they qualify financially. Some are not eligible, for whatever reason, and Matthew 25 will try to see those children.

As for the elderly, since most are eligible for Medicare, the few that the clinic sees are those who aren’t United States citizens.

* * *
Nancy Schenkel has been Matthew 25’s administrator for the past seven years. Prior to that, she was a long-term care administrator for 25 years. A friend who was on the board of Matthew 25 told her there was an opening. Schenkel, who had heard nothing but good things about the clinic, was encouraged by her friend to apply for the job.

“I’m not looking for a new job,” Schenkel told her friend. But several of the board members called to talk to her, and invited her to come down “just to look.” That one look that did it for Schenkel.

“I got in here and in ten minutes, I knew I was going to switch jobs,” she recalls. “There was something very special about it. Right off the bat I walked in, and it was organized chaos. But there was the relationship that you could see between the volunteers and the staff and the patients that you could feel. And I knew there was something very special here. I accepted the position shortly thereafter and I have never regretted it.”

Schenkel is seeing more people aged 40 to 60 in the halls of Matthew 25. “When I started here seven years ago, the largest age group we saw were the 20 to 30 year olds,” says Schenkel. Jokingly, she adds, “And when you’re 20 to 30 years old, you’re invincible, you don’t need health insurance.” But that is when some serious problems can develop, and when they come home to roost...

“At that age, you’re coming in with more health care problems, you’re coming in with more complex problems, and you’re more expensive to treat because (of) your medication needs alone. You’re starting to see some chronic illnesses that will need ongoing care,” says Schenkel.

The clinic is funded by donations. Some of them are large, some are small. Matthew 25 does not receive any help from the government. Care is based on income. The Neighborhood Health Clinic is federally qualified, and charges on a sliding fee scale. Patients who have too much income to qualify for Matthew 25 are referred to the Neighborhood Health Clinic.

The money though, keeps coming in, and so do the clients. And the subject of expansion has been a topic of discussion for several years. Because of its centralized location, the decision was made to expand the building where it is.

“Someone, very generously bought the lot next door to us, and gave it to us,” says Schenkel. “Isn’t that awesome? So now we own this whole side of the block, and once we had that, we said, ‘now it’s time to add on.’ So we’ll triple the size of the building.”

The finished building will have 20,260 square feet, up from 6,800 square
feet. Groundbreaking was May 5 and the project, which will add a second story to the facility, is expected to be completed by late this year.

A big need for Matthew 25 clients is medication. As everyone who’s ever had to have a prescription filled knows, medicine isn’t cheap. The clinic’s Patient Assistant Program helps clients out. Most pharmaceutical companies have a policy to help indigent patients. But a lot of paperwork is required to get free or reduced-cost help. Matthew 25 has more than 25 volunteers who fill out paperwork so the companies can send 90 days of free medication to the clinic. Every three months, the paperwork has to be filled out again.

“It’s very, very paperwork intensive, but so well worth it,” says Schenkel. There will be a special room in the new clinic that will feature 11 workstations for the paperwork volunteers, instead of the cramped quarters they now occupy. “Hopefully, we’ll triple the number of medications we can get,” adds Schenkel.

So what about the big question overall? If the government provided basic health care to all citizens, how would that affect Matthew 25 and similar clinics across the country?

Schenkel had this to say: “I think it would be so positively affective. I take a lot for granted that everybody knows good nutrition, and people know that lifestyle impacts health, but I find here that a lot of people are unaware of those things or they’ve not had access to these things. Dental is an area where you really see that. Recently we had a gentleman in, and we always give toothbrushes and toothpaste to everyone that comes into our dental office. And he said, ‘well, can I have five more toothbrushes, because I have a family of six, four children, my wife and I, we all share one toothbrush.’”

“We cringe,” adds Schenkel, “and we made this comment to a group of people just last week, and they all cringed, but this is the reality.”

People cut corners in other ways. Two people who have high blood pressure who live together will share each other’s meds, even though the medicine for one person may not be right for the one who is “borrowing” it.

And even if we know something is bad for us, self-control can sometimes break down. Schenkel has high cholesterol, but confesses, “I love a good steak!” she says, laughing.

And the $64,000 question: should government provide healthcare?

“Ten years ago,” begins Schenkel, “if you had asked me that, I would have said, absolutely not. Because I was an employer. And we can’t afford this. And it was long-term care, so we were dependent on Medicaid and Medicare. Now, sitting here, I have changed my mind. I don’t think they should totally be in charge of it, but I think that if you’ve got a faithful and good employee, you do whatever you can to keep them, to make the quality of their life good, and if that means providing good health care for them, it can only better the community, if better your company.”

Schenkel notes Canada’s health care system does provide some sort of safety net with free access to help, but it too is a flawed system, in terms of having to wait to have a procedure done.“I don’t know what the perfect world would be (in terms of health care),” says Schenkel. “You do the best you can with the resources you have.”

And as for the future of health care in the United States?

“Well, we know what we have right now isn’t working,” says Schenkel. “There’s got to be another alternative. And I would love to sit on any committee there is that explores what’s out there. I would love to see more Matthew 25s. We’re one of the largest in the Midwest.”

Matthew 25 is also open more than 50 hours a week. Smaller area clinics might be open for an evening, and they are doing their part to help out in the community. But in order for these clinics to be successful, well, it takes a village. “The whole community has to buy into it,” says Schenkel. “And I would love to see that happen in more communities.”

Schenkel wants people to know there is always a need — warm bodies to answer phones, cold cash to purchase supplies. The clinic’s website is www.matthew25online.org. Visitors to the site can fill out volunteer form and get information about the clinic.

For more information, log on to www.matthew25online.org or call 260-426-3250.

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