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By Judy Cole

Charlotte’s Goodwill Opportunity Campus glistens with the promise of a freshly minted coin. Opened in June 2016, the state-of-the-art, multi-use facility offers site-wide WiFi, smart lighting and flexible workspaces purpose-built to be reconfigured to meet changing demands.

The campus is the culmination of a process that began in 2012 when Goodwill Industries of the Southern Piedmont started re-examining some core objectives. Teaching job skills and finding employment opportunities for the traditionally underserved had long been their game plan.

The Power of Work” was formidable but it wasn’t enough.

In addition to CCHC’s health and dental care, the Goodwill Opportunity Campus offers clients a variety of onsite services including a credit union, financial literacy education, job training/placement, and transition support for the formerly incarcerated—along with a donation depot, retail spaces, a restaurant, and meeting rooms available for public rental and nonprofit use. Photo credit: Judy Cole

“We took a look at what we’d been doing for the last 45 years, and at our clients’ needs for the future,” noted Chris Jackson, who becomes president and CEO on June 1.

Many years’ experience taught a harsh lesson: Even with training and job placement, without childcare, healthcare or the ability to manage finances, clients were not truly being set up for success.

Going forward, Goodwill’s revised vision would focus on a model of sustainable employment for those who can’t find work for a variety of reasons, including disability, educational deficits, recent jail or prison time, substance abuse and institutional poverty.

In addition to client training and placement, the new campus would also provide targeted, integrated services aimed at lifting clients out of poverty permanently via strategic partnerships.

Charlotte Community Health Center seemed an obvious choice for the medical component of the equation.

“When Goodwill was going through the [vetting] process, they were very intentional about which organizations would be included,” explained CCHC Chief Executive Officer Carolyn Allison.

“We’re all working with the same population, so we came together to make sure they have all the resources they need [in one place]. That’s the beauty of being here.”

One-stop help for the underserved

Community health centers are tasked by the government with providing medical services on a sliding scale, and in some locations, dental and behavioral health services as well.

CCHC’s Community Development Director Laura Rankin-Allen (left) and CEO Carolyn Allison aim to raise the centers’ profile from Charlotte’s “unintentionally best-kept secret,” to the area’s go-to healthcare source for the underserved. Photo credit: Judy Cole

“What’s unique about this center is that we provide all three,” Allison explained.

With comprehensive services in place, referrals elsewhere are no longer required.

“Most of our patients here are uninsured, or underinsured, making it difficult for them to find transportation,” she said.

CCHC also works to accommodate patients’ schedules, to ensure the fewest number of visits, and the least amount of time possible spent away from work or other obligations.

Free daycare at the Play and Learn Center (for up to four hours) is also available for those using any campus service.

Back to the future

Prior to its current status as a Community Health Center, the practice operated for 15 years as a free clinic out of the East Charlotte neighborhood on Freedom Drive.

Support and seed money from Novant Health Systems got the current programs up and running. Allison also credits the relationships her predecessor, Nancy Hudson, forged with faith-based and other community organizations for CCHC’s current momentum.

The portable mobile dental station is currently set up in a medical exam room. Groundbreaking for CCHC’s new dental clinic is scheduled for June 2017. Photo credit: Judy Cole

Prior to its presence at the Goodwill Campus, CHCC opened an office in the University neighborhood. While many patients followed the practice when it moved there from East Charlotte, there are plans to open at least one more location, likely very close to where it all started.

Allison, her board and her staff are actively engaged in space planning, based on a variety of social determinants, such as transportation needs, language, demographics (high concentrations of non-English speaking populations) and presence of existing healthcare facilities. “When you look at our patient population by zip code, the highest percent are coming from East Charlotte,” she said.

Also in the works is a full-scale dental clinic, set to break ground in June. Right now, the dental practice operates part-time out of one of the site’s five medical exam rooms.

Community Health Centers are here to stay

In the currently charged political climate, health care policy and funding continue to incite heated debate. But Allison isn’t worried, citing support for health centers as “nonpartisan.”

“Because we offer comprehensive services, we’re already the main source for primary care across the country,” she said. “On top of that, we’re required to monitor our quality outcomes . . . [That’s why] community health centers are used so often when federal programs roll out.”

No matter the result of discussions from Washington, Allison believes community health centers will be part of any future strategy. “We have to be,” she explained. “It doesn’t make sense to create a whole new healthcare delivery system for those who struggle with access to care.”

A unique financial model

One advantage that keeps CCHC afloat financially is that it can accept private insurance. Another is the board’s non-profit status. While in the process of transitioning from free clinic to community health center, a decision was made to create a foundation board.

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“Even though health centers receive funding from HRSA (Health Resources and Services Administration), it only accounts for 20 percent of our revenue,” Allison said. “I have to manage a program that’s $4 million dollars and growing.”

Getting the message out

Allison’s game plan for CCHC’s future is to build a strong stable organization that’s prepared for the growth to come. Right now, she’s most concerned with getting the message out—not just within the community, but to the public entities that serve it.

“Within DSS, there’s typically a large turnover in staff,” she explained. “They might not be aware there’s a health center in the community, or they’re not clear about what services we provide.”

Allison says it’s incumbent upon health center leaders to make sure the people they partner with understand the options for the unemployed, under-employed and working poor.

You can’t get there from here

Visibility is one stumbling block to care but Allison fears lack of access may be another matter. “As a community, we need to look at [creating] additional routes to get those people who are in the most need access to food, to a supermarket, to healthcare.”

As an example, Allison cites the disconnect between Renaissance West and the Goodwill Campus as one frustrating example of the maddening transportation deficit that’s long plagued Charlotte’s poorest. Renaissance West was intended to provide stable housing for low-income residents with consistent employment histories working to pull themselves out of poverty.

Geographically, it’s 3.5 miles from the Goodwill Campus, and yet, there’s no public transit between the two.

“Something that simple . . . just three and a half miles, but the bus line does not extend here. If it did, individuals there would have access,” said Allison.

So for now, Allison is willing to look at “bringing the mountain to Mohammed.”

“Many health centers have multiple locations,” she said. “We’re not interested in being the biggest, we’re interested in being the best. If that means we need to open more sites, that’s what we’ll do.”

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Judy Cole

Judy Cole is a Gastonia-based writer who's been writing for magazines and newspapers for almost three decades.