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Frances Nelson Health Center Celebrates 50 Years Of Promoting Equal Access To Health Care In CU

Frances Nelson

Frances Nelson was a community leader who opened her home to African-American children who needed a home in the 1940s. The home later became the site of a free clinic named after her in November 1969. Courtesy of Promise Health Care & Dr. James Ellis/Museum of the Grand Prairie

The Frances Nelson Health Center in Champaign is celebrating 50 years of providing health services to people in the Champaign-Urbana area, regardless of ability to pay.

The clinic was created in the 1960s after a University of Illinois study on racial health disparities revealed something stark: black babies in Champaign county were twice as likely to die in their first year of life as white babies, said Nancy Greenwalt, who leads Promise Health Care, which includes both the Frances Nelson Health Center and SmileHealthy Dental Clinic.

The health center was formally established in 1969 as a free clinic aimed at promoting equal access to health care—and continues with that mission today, she said.

(Data from the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District shows the racial disparity in infant mortality has since narrowed slightly, yet persists both in Champaign County and nationwide.)

The Frances Nelson Health Center will celebrate its 50th anniversary with an event from 5 to 7 pm on Tuesday, November 19, at the clinic on Bloomington Road in Champaign.

In preparation for the event, Greenwalt has been collecting stories and memories about the health center over the years. She said stories can still be submitted to her either by mail to the health center or by calling 217-403-5401; many of them have already been published online.

“For me, the richest stories have sort of been hearing about the origin days, hearing from the people who created the health center,” she says. “It’s very moving, it’s very humbling to hear about what they did, and how fortunate our community is to be able to maintain this health center for 50 years.”

Greenwalt spoke with Illinois Public Media about who Frances Nelson was and how the clinic has changed and grown over the years.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Christine Herman: The health center is named after Frances Nelson. Who was she?

Nancy Greenwalt: Frances Nelson was a community leader in the African-American community who opened up her home in the 1940s to African-American kids that did not have one. So you can think of it sort of as like a large foster home, and a response to a lack of access for a home for kids who didn't have one at the time. 

And then she passed away, her family moved away and the house sat vacant. Separately, there was this health care access issue and movement to create a free clinic. And when it needed a home, the Optimist Club—a service organization like the Rotary or Kiwanis that supported Frances Nelson in the ‘40s—supported moving the free clinic into that home.

So it's interesting because people assume she did healthcare or was a nurse. She actually had her own important service work in the community. But we take that name to honor the legacy of what she did in the ‘40s. 

CH: How has the clinic evolved and changed since then? 

NG: Preparing for the anniversary event, I've been blessed to be able to talk to a couple of the early leaders and read stories about how they helped. They would provide care through volunteers and donations and dropped off supplies to about 30 people a week. Today, the clinic serves about 900 patients a week. 

So the scale has changed, but the mission is the same. We want a healthier community and equal access to care. But all of healthcare is changing really fast. So the health center is very different than it was definitely in the origin days. 

CH: What makes Frances Nelson's approach to healthcare different or unique compared to the larger hospital systems, or where someone might go for care elsewhere? 

NG: The people who created the health center were responding to a community issue, a community need. So, it was the people most affected, were creating the solution. 

Federally qualified health centers throughout the country today are charged with the expectation that active patients of your health center are on the Board of Directors. And so the majority of my board are patients of the health center, people who use the clinic, people who speak to what they need and provide that patient voice.

And so, from our origin days to today, the care we deliver is guided by and governed by patients who use the system. 

CH: You mentioned the Frances Nelson Health Center was created to address a need that had been identified in the community. What needs persist in our community, when it comes to health care, especially for underserved populations? 

NG: Well, the health center is busy and people need care. They need primary medical care; and access to dental care is a huge issue. We were very lucky to add a second dentist just a couple of months ago to the SmileHealthy dental clinic, and yet we stay completely busy and can't serve all the people who want to get there. 

I think the healthcare system is confusing for people. We want to try to reduce or remove barriers to care, so we try to have same day access, try to reduce barriers of transportation, health literacy and language. 

CH: You all have been asking people to share stories about their experiences with Francis Nelson over the years. What are some of the highlights of things that you've heard from people? 

NG: I was really tickled when a former patient and family stopped by and dropped off a story; this was just somebody who said the health center meant a lot to them. There was access to care for them at a time when they couldn't have otherwise had access to care. The note was about how they raised a family with great medical care that they received from the Frances Nelson Health Center

Christine Herman is a reporter for Illinois Public Media. Follow her on Twitter: @CTHerman