Free Stanwood clinic a labor of love

STANWOOD — Sometimes big dreams begin while passengers are wedged into airplane seats. All that time to think, and so little to do.

So it was for Dr. Jimmy Grierson in February 2008. He was sitting in an old DC-3 returning from a trip to Haiti, one of the most impoverished countries in the Western Hemisphere, where he had participated in a medical mission sponsored by Camano Chapel.

“If we can go halfway around the world and provide medical care, why can’t we do this in our own back yard?” the Stanwood physician wondered.

Unlike many such pipe dreams, though, it didn’t end when he set foot in the airport terminal.

Traveling with Grierson on that trip was Mich Michl, Camano Chapel’s pastor of outreach and missions, who shared his vision.

Word of the effort spread throughout Stanwood and around Camano Island. “The doors keep opening and opening,” Michl said. “It’s amazing the number of people who said, ‘Yeah, I could help with that.’ “

Today, the culmination of those efforts, Safe Harbor Free Clinic, will have an open house from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. The clinic is housed in the Stanwood/Camano Medical Center, 9631 269th St. NW.

It opens for business June 19 and will treat patients on the first and third Friday evening of each month, serving people in Snohomish, Island and Skagit counties who don’t have health insurance.

With Washington’s economy still weak and unemployment in Snohomish County at about 8.4 percent, “we think there’s liable to be a big, big need,” said Larry Weston, the clinic’s executive director.

The clinic is opening at a time when the number of people without health insurance has risen nearly 21 percent in the last year, according to state Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler.

About one in five people between the ages of 19 and 64 have no health insurance, he said. That number is expected to rise with the recently announced price hikes in the state’s Basic Health Plan, which provides insurance for low-income adults and families.

Safe Harbor, the only free clinic between Seattle and Bellingham, is one of an estimated 1,200 free clinics in the country.

Sixty people, including about 30 nurses, have agreed to volunteer at the clinic, he said.

“They have a heart for helping,” Weston said. “I’m absolutely amazed at the willingness and eagerness of people to reach out and help people who are less fortunate.”

Others are making cash donations to the clinic, ranging from one person who gives $5 a week to several donors who have written checks for $1,000.

Some donate in other ways. A local frame shop refused to let volunteers pay for a banner for the new clinic. Merrill Gardens, a senior community in Stanwood, has organized a fundraising bazaar to support it.

The effort to open the clinic has involved so many people, Weston said, it has “a barn raising, community feel to it.”

The need is great

Safe Harbor Free Clinic is the newest of 30 free clinics now operating in Washington. They span the state’s diverse topography, from Port Angeles on the Olympic Peninsula, to Vancouver near the Oregon border, to Kennewick and Spokane in Eastern Washington.

Free clinics continue to bloom because even the sliding fee charged by many nonprofit clinics is too much for some people to afford, said M. Jean Serafy, executive director of the Free Clinics of the Western Region.

In the 13 Western states where her organization operates, “I’ve had more than 10 new startups in the last year,” she said. “That tells me we aren’t answering the need. There’s a problem out there. Patients are not getting care.”

People may be surprised to hear that a free clinic is opening in Stanwood, perhaps assuming free clinics vanished like the 1960s “flower power” movement that spawned many of them.

“The Haight-Ashbury Free Clinics still exists,” Serafy said of the California clinic that was in the forefront of that free-clinic movement.

Before Safe Harbor, the free clinic that’s closest to Snohomish County opened in north Seattle in October 2003, a project of two congregations. Haller Lake Christian Health Clinic is staffed by 100 volunteers and is open on Wednesday evenings and Friday mornings, said Diane Steward, executive director.

Nearby Northwest Hospital and Medical Center donates X-rays and lab tests, she said. Dental fillings, cleanings and extractions are provided by Seattle Donated Dental Services.

The clinic expects to treat about 1,500 patients this year, drawing people from as far as Renton and Federal Way.

Nearly a third of its patients come from Snohomish County, Steward said. So the clinic has begun talking to congregations about supporting a $100,000 medical van that someday would make stops in Snohomish County.

High hopes for future

When Weston heard that volunteers were trying to open a free clinic in Stanwood, he had only one thought: “Don’t you dare do this without getting me involved,” he told Grierson.

Weston, 74, was used to taking on big, seemingly impossible projects. He had retired from AT&T, where he was often assigned to open new sales offices. “I liked to do that — build something out of nothing,” he said.

Grierson didn’t waste any time taking him up on his offer. Last fall, he asked whether Weston would be willing to drop everything to attend a statewide conference on free medical clinics scheduled the next day in Kennewick.

Weston agreed. Michl, the Camano Chapel pastor, joined him on the trip.

“We were overwhelmed with the number of things that must take place,” Michl said. Insurance coverage. Mission statements. Getting nonprofit status from the IRS.

“It can be pretty daunting, and there are times of being a little nervous about such an adventure,” he said. “The reward of being able to affect so many lives kept us going.”

Clinic volunteer Joanie Davis said she saw the need for a free clinic while working as a public health nurse in Island County.

“A lot of people fell through the holes, didn’t qualify for Medicaid,” she said.

Grierson, 36, is a physician at the Stanwood branch of Skagit Valley Medical Center, where the free clinic will be housed.

He said he grew up in a small town where his father was the only surgeon. “I came to a small town for it to be more than just a job,” he said. “For me, it’s a lifestyle.”

That means taking calls on off hours — on a recent weekend, a patient needed to be treated for a cut hand.

“People do the same for me,” he said. He recalled the time a patient heard that his car battery was dead and said, “Why don’t I run over and grab you one and stick it in your car?”

He said he hopes the free clinic can someday provide medical services to several thousand people, offering immunizations and checkups for kids, basic medical services, and referrals for patients who need to see specialists. Volunteers will help link patients with social services, such as food pantries and groups that provide donated clothes.

Church members will be on hand, “visible but not obligatory,” for people who seek spiritual care, Davis said.

The clinic was nurtured by a sense of community in the Stanwood area that’s different from larger communities where people have a lot of anonymity, Grierson said.

“For me this clinic is a labor of love. It’s a way for the community to rally around people … who are hurting and just need help.”

Reporter Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486,

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