With one of the nation’s highest poverty rates for a city its size, Athens has plenty of people badly in need of medical care, and without the resources or health insurance to pay for it.
But one 16-year-old clinic has made a difference for thousands of them.
Founded in 2001 and managed for several years by a University of Georgia student, Mercy Health Center has now grown to serve more than 1,500 people each year, including 26 who completed a lengthy program to free them of Hepatitis C. Though it now has a paid staff of 15, 11 of them full-time, Mercy still provides its services to needy and needful people free of charge, funded with donations and grants, and thanks in large part to an army of volunteers.
In 2016, nearly 800 volunteers gave nearly 27,000 hours of their time to Mercy; nearly 8,000 of those hours were given by more than 120 doctors, nurses and other professionals. One volunteer is Dr. Barbara Schuster, former dean of the University of Georgia-Augusta University Medical Partnership, said Mercy’s executive director, Tracy Thompson.
“We couldn’t do what we do without volunteers,” Thompson said.
What Mercy does had broadened considerably since its early days, when the clinic was in an Oglethorpe Avenue house. A few years ago, the clinic moved across the street to a medical office complex at 700 Oglethorpe Avenue, near the Oglethorpe-Hawthorne Avenue intersection.
This summer, the center was able to purchase the property, thanks in part to a grant from a family foundation.
Inside on any given day (and nights, too on some days), the clinic bustles; those 1,545 unique 2016 patients made 12,408 total visits to the clinic, an 18 percent increase over the year before. This year, Thompson expects the patient number to be about 2,000.
Its services include more than a dozen medical specialties, as well a pharmacy, behavioral health, and health education.
There’s also a state-of-the art dental area, but unlike most of the rest of the clinic, it sits empty most of the time.
Mercy hasn’t had as much success attracting volunteer help from dentists, and state regulations make it difficult for the clinic to even provide dental cleaning by trained dental hygienists, Thompson said.
“To me, this is the saddest part of our building,” she said. “We have hygienists that would love to come here.”
Health is about more than germs, and the care at Mercy is likely to go beyond the purely medical.
Mercy is a Christian faith-based clinic — the UGA student who founded it later went into mission work — but its patients, and volunteers, might be any faith, or none.
As at the beginning, volunteers are at the heart of Mercy.
Many are students; among last year’s Mercy volunteers were about 500 students, many from UGA. Not all who ask to volunteer are accepted. Several hundred who asked to volunteer at Mercy had to be turned away.
“We don’t look at their grades. We look at the quality of the people,” Thompson said.
Volunteering at Mercy is a coveted target for students, perhaps because of previous students’ experiences there.
UGA student volunteer Sydney Sawyer hopes to get into medical school, and the clinic provides an ideal preparation for that goal.
But being at Mercy has opened her eyes.
“I don’t stay here for the hours. I stay here because I love it,” Sawyer said. “I love working here because they do so many great things. Everyone’s so nice and caring.”
She understands the disparities in health care, and how much it’s needed, in a way she never did before, she said.
Taylor Smith, another volunteer, agreed.
Staff and volunteers become more like family, said Smith, a student in UGA’s College of Family and Consumer Sciences.
Mercy’s patients have to be completely uninsured and at or below 150 percent of federal poverty guidelines; they come from Clarke and five surrounding counties.
Reed Hill, a student in UGA’s School of Public Health, had read about things like the lack of access to health care that poor people face, but volunteering at Mercy Health Clinic gives those issues a different reality.
Many are remarkable people who may be facing issues not of their own making, and the clinic can make a huge difference in their lives, he said.
“This is kind of their lifeline, in a way,” he said.
Mercy’s major annual fundraiser is coming up this Monday: “The Power of a Servant’s Heart,” a dinner at in Athens Church, 10 Huntington Road. There’s no charge, but people are asked for a three-year pledge of support. Anyone interested in reserving a spot can contact Lauren Delmerico at (706) 425-9445, ext. 212, or email@example.com.
Follow Lee Shearer at www.facebook.com/LeeShearerABH or https://twitter.com/LeeShearer.