Health Clinic Celebrates New Lease on Life

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nine-year-old Sergio Montoya wasn't quite sure why so many people were celebrating Monday afternoon at the Samuel Dixon Family Health Center in Val Verde.

Holding a yellow balloon and listening to music blaring from outdoor speakers, he said he knew his mother had brought him to the health center for a party. The reason for the gathering, he figured, was that "they're going to take out the clinic."

In fact, the 175 people milling about the medical clinic and its parking lot were celebrating the facility's continued life, rather than its demise. But Sergio, an occasional patient at the clinic, could be forgiven for assuming the worst.

Until July 1, when it was incorporated under a new board of directors composed of local residents, even top officials of the health center feared the financially troubled facility would be forced to close. For the past 10 years, the center had provided health care to the area's predominantly low-income residents, many of whom would otherwise have to travel at least 12 miles to the nearest hospital.

But the transfer of control of the clinic from two area hospitals to the community group qualified it for federal funding. The announcement that the county had awarded the health center $120,000 of the funds it receives under the federal Community Development Block Grant program came just weeks after Michael Gales, a physician's assistant who has helped staff the clinic for the past six years, sent letters to his patients advising them to seek medical attention elsewhere. "It was that close," Gales said.

The federal money, combined with donations from private citizens, local service organizations and area businesses, will fund the clinic until July, 1991. The board of directors already has begun applying for grants and soliciting donations to support the medical center beyond that date, said Edwin Brown, president of the Val Verde Community Assn. and a board member.

Val Verde residents attending the afternoon party expressed relief that they would continue to receive affordable quality medical care within walking distance of their houses.

"Every time one of the kids got sick, I would just run across the street," said Juana Ruelas, who lives just feet from the clinic with her three children, ages 8, 14 and 16. "I was pretty sure it was going to close down."

The clinic's central location in Val Verde is more than a convenience for those who live in the rural Santa Clarita Valley community. Many residents do not own a car, and thus find it difficult to travel the 12 miles to Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital in Valencia or to drive the 17 miles to Olive View Hospital in Sylmar.

"There's a lot of wealthy people moving in," 18-year-old Mary Gudino, a resident of Val Verde for the past four years, said of her community. "But all the poor people are still here, and they need the help."

The facility provides health care to 2,400 patients annually, collecting fees on a sliding scale based on a patient's ability to pay, Gales said. Ninety-four percent of the center's patients receive some reduction in fees, he said, and 20% pay no fee at all.

The clinic was established in 1980 in honor of Samuel Dixon, pastor of the Macedonia Church of God in Christ from 1961 to 1974, when he was killed in an automobile accident. The health center, which includes three examining rooms, a lobby and two administrative offices, sits on the site of the church's former Sunday school.

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