Pastor Mary Overstreet Smith, Founder, North by Northeast Health Center
Reverend Mary Overstreet-Smith, fondly known as Pastor Mary, is co-founder of the only free adult clinic in North Portland, the North by Northeast Community Health Center. Along with co-founder and medical director Dr. Jill Ginsberg, Pastor Mary realized the vision of opening a neighborhood clinic that provides free health care for low-income, uninsured adults.
Since the clinic opened its doors in August 2006, volunteer physicians and health providers have treated about 100 patients a month. Evening hours allow people to get the care they need without having to miss work. The clinic provides a valuable service in Multnomah County, where some 17% of the population does not have health insurance.
For more than 30 years, Pastor Mary has provided leadership at Powerhouse Temple Church. She also serves as a foster parent, a licensed special investigator, a marriage and family counselor, and the founder and host of a television ministry.
In 2005, she provided homes and support to families displaced by Hurricane Katrina, and led a local effort to gather supplies to aid survivors of the flooding in the Gulf Coast. For her commitment to community, Pastor Mary received the 2008 Oregon Women of Achievement Award.
In Her Own Words, Pastor Mary talks about how the idea for a free clinic came about, and discusses her vision for a drop-in center for children with autism.
I was living in my home in Glendale, Arizona when Hurricane Katrina hit. It was a devastating time for families in the Gulf Coast, and seeing how people were suffering made me angry. FEMA wasn’t doing what they were supposed to. The President wasn’t doing what he was supposed to. People were being left to die in the streets.
I thought that if everyone would just try to help at least one family out, things wouldn’t be so bad.
I decided to do something about it. I put up my home in Arizona for sale, with the intention of using the proceeds from the sale to help out the storm and flood victims. My daughters and I went to the Gulf Coast, and started relocating families to Portland.
We helped a total of 40 families. We couldn’t bring them up all at once. We bought plane tickets for the older folks; and put the younger people in buses to make the trip up here.
When the families got her, I asked apartment managers in the city to rent apartments to the relocated families. I paid their rent and utilities for three months. They lost everything in the storm.
Many of the older folks had a lot of health problems. There was nowhere for them to go, because the free adult clinic in the city had closed years ago. Some diabetics had to go to the emergency room because they ran out of insulin. That’s a very costly solution.
I thought that if we had a free clinic in the area, the emergency rooms would not be over-crowded with people who didn’t really need to be there.
We were still gathering and bringing supplies to the Gulf Coast, when Dr. Jill Ginsberg came by one day to drop off donations from the neighborhood. I found out she had been working at Kaiser for 13 years. I told her that what we really need is a free clinic in this area, right now. I told her about the urgency, that it’s really expensive for the entire system to have people coming into the emergency room, when their problems can be taken care of at a clinic.
We had a building a block away that wasn’t in good shape at all. We had a bakery there at one time, and later it was used for computer classes. Dr. Jill walked down there with me to look at the space. She looked at it, and it didn’t look too promising. I told her that she was ordained to help us open the clinic.
The next day, Dr. Jill ran into my daughter and gave her a letter from Kaiser. Dr. Jill had talked to her superiors, and they wrote out a letter authorizing us to get whatever we needed from the Kaiser warehouse to get the clinic opened.
I had $1,100, which I used to hire a couple of brothers to build exam rooms. Kaiser let us have much-needed equipment for the clinic.
We called a community meeting to announce our plans for the free clinic. There were a lot of people who couldn’t get behind the idea. They wanted to know where the money would be coming from.
“Donations,” I said. “The money will come from the people.”
People Stepping Up
It took us nine months to get the clinic opened. We were featured in The Oregonian and The New York Times. Willamette Week included us in their annual Book of Giving. Kaiser and Fred Meyer helped us with medications and pharmacy supplies. The donations – monetary and in-kind contributions— started coming in.
There was such a need in the community for a service like this. Budget cuts caused the Oregon Health Plan to drop some 600,000 people from the plan. These people didn’t have health insurance, and many of them have critical needs.
The clinic is open one evening a week. Lab work is provided by different hospitals in the city. Doctors, social workers, and nurses donate their time to help out and see patients. We asked doctors to commit four hours of their time each month.
People who come to the clinic have told me that they don’t feel like a number when they walk through our doors. They feel compassion from people who really want to help. They feel that our volunteer doctors understand them. They feel really comfortable coming to the clinic.
When people feel better, they live better. Because of the clinic, people have been able to do more with their lives. I talked to people who had to quit their jobs because of medical conditions. Now that they’re getting treated, they can go back to work and support themselves.
We also saw a lot of people who haven’t been seen by a doctor in several years. They couldn’t afford medical care, because they didn’t have insurance.
The success of the clinic really motivated me to do all that I can for the community. Since the clinic doors opened, we managed to operate in the black. We owe it all to the people who really care and give to help others. They see that the need is really great.
If we as a small church can do as much as we have, think about what the mega-churches can do. If one person makes a stand to do something positive, somebody else would take a stand too. Too often, we don’t need someone to validate what we want to do. Just do what you’re supposed to do, and your action will speak for itself.
Minding Children with Autism
Our next project is starting an autistic center for special-needs kids and their families. I have a great-grandson who is severely autistic. I can relate to parents of autistic children who require 24-hour care. I understand how hard everyday life can be for families who are dealing with autism.
We’re looking to build a free drop-in center for autistic children. We want to help parents who may need a few hours away from home to go on a job interview, take care of errands, or go to the doctor’s office. We want to be able to provide activities for the kids while they’re here, so we’re looking for a facility that is at least 10,000 sq ft. We want to build a multi-purpose room for enrichment activities.
We’re still in the early stages of getting partners for this project. We already have a list of qualified health professionals who are willing to donate their time. We’re going to keep plugging away, because this is a service that is badly needed in our community.
Colors of Influence Winter 2009