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Open Door Clinic wins grants, plans for the future

“We realized we needed more case management to make sure no one falls through the cracks. Many of the patients have never seen a dentist before.”

— Heidi Sulis, Open Door Clinic executive director

MIDDLEBURY — The Open Door Clinic (ODC) in Middlebury enters 2019 on a high note, with two recent grant awards and a strategic plan that will sharpen the focus of the free medical service for the next three years.
The awards include a $20,000 Ben & Jerry’s Foundation “Vermont Economic Justice” grant, and a $15,000 financial commitment from the Walter Cerf Community Fund.
Heidi Sulis, executive director of the ODC, said the grants will help the clinic boost its wide range of services to the underinsured and uninsured, including migrant farm workers and those who simply can’t afford basic health care and dental services.
“When we get grants of this scope, it provides us with the stability that we need to meet the growing and dynamic needs of our community within the context of an ever changing constellation of funding sources,” Sulis said. “It’s very affirming to receive these gifts because we feel that prominent community organizations endorse our work, and their support will make a pivotal difference in helping us take ODC to its 30th anniversary. It’s fundamental help for a free clinic.”
Established in 1991, the non-profit ODC now has eight full- and part-time workers and a cadre of local physicians and dentists who generously donate their services to folks who can’t afford basic medical care. Typical ailments treated by ODC include toothaches, hypertension, joint pain and back pain.
In 2018, the ODC saw 889 patients and provided a total of 1,434 medical visits. That was up from 802 patients and 1,365 visits in 2017, according to the clinic’s statistics.
Around half of the clinic’s clients are Spanish-speaking migrant farm workers, according to Sulis. It’s a population that typically hasn’t had regular checkups, has transportation hardships and speaks little English. So ODC officials must often travel to farms and get translators to effectively communicate with migrant worker patients.
The clinic typically provides flu clinics at more than two-dozen Addison County farms each year.
The Ben & Jerry’s grant, according to Sulis, will enhance the ODC’s “linguistic and cultural competency” to better serve migrant workers. Specifically, it will help train ODC volunteers in recognize signs of mental health troubles in patients. It will pay for upgrades to the clinic’s website, as well as for new print materials that will better explain the ODC’s services — and Vermont’s overall health care system — to non-English patients with limited schooling. That print material, according to ODC Communications Specialist Christiane Kokubo, will include illustrations by local artist Marek Bennett.
Volunteer outreach teams will distribute these materials at area farms and at other nonprofits in an effort to encourage migrant workers seek help before their ailments become debilitating.
Sulis noted the ODC will stretch the new funds to explore the feasibility of a “video interpretation system” that could improve communication with migrant workers.
The clinic now benefits from Spanish-speaking volunteers, electronic apps, and a phone line interpretation system to help with translation. But Sulis explained a video interpretation system would give the physician and patients quick access — through a phone or tablet — to a translator when a local volunteer is unavailable.
“We’d like to determine whether that would be an improvement and a fiscally sound thing for us to do,” Sulis said.
Meanwhile, the Walter Cerf grant is funding a new, part-time worker within the ODC’s dental service. The worker, who started in September, is providing case management for clinic patients and the various dental service providers.
“We realized we needed more case management to make sure no one falls through the cracks,” Sulis said. “Many of the patients have never seen a dentist before.”
Clinic officials thanked Ben & Jerry’s and the Vermont Community Foundation, which administers the Walter Cerf grants. It’s money that’s allowing the ODC to consider, for the first time, tweaks to its service lineup.
“These are things that we wouldn’t have funds for because they aren’t the core priority, but that are important to help us keep reaching out to new patients and bringing in people who are more aware of what we do,” Kokubo said.
“It gives us liberty to think more creatively about some things that would really be helpful to us that we don’t have,” Sulis added.
THINKING CREATIVELY
And ODC officials have made a commitment to thinking more creatively about services, thanks to the generosity of Weybridge resident Bill Roper, an attorney and former top administrator of the Orton Community Foundation. Sulis explained Roper has been an ardent ODC supporter, as was his late sister, Dr. Marty Roper. Bill Roper last year offered to help the organization craft a three-year strategic plan laying out a longer-term vision for ODC priorities.
After numerous meetings with clinic staff and board members, the ODC last month finalized its plan.
“We had gone through a similar process in the past, but it wasn’t as comprehensive,” Sulis said. “I think we should all have these big-picture goals in mind.”
The plan recommends the clinic, during the next three years, take such steps as:
•  Grow its interpreter network.
•  Encourage self-sufficiency in the migrant worker population, in part by sustaining the public transportation network, providing opportunities to learn English.
•  Explore the use of telemedicine.
•  Increase outreach efforts to more clinic-eligible residents.
•  Sustain the current range of services that are being provided. In essence don’t build out the Open Door Clinic too aggressively. But the plan does recommend exploring the expansion of dental services.
•  Increase fundraising opportunities, including applying for grants and soliciting donations. Also, pursue potential collaborations with Porter Medical Center, Middlebury College, University of Vermont Medical School and other organizations.
Indeed, fundraising will continue to be critical for the ODC in a health care climate that continues to evolve at both the state and federal levels.
Sulis was pleased to report that its annual appeal — which ran from June through December of last year — exceeded its $60,000 goal by $14,000.
The clinic’s annual Town Meeting Day requests generate another $13,633.
That combined $87,633 represents a large chunk of the ODC’s $390,000 budget for 2019.
“We’re really grateful for all the support the community gives us,” Sulis said.
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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