As a Health Advocate VISTA volunteer in the late 1960s, I was active in the earliest phase of community organizing, lobbying and grant writing that started the Lee County Cooperative Clinic (LCCC), Marianna, Arkansas. After 40 years, all memories of my two years in Lee County come attached to strong emotions. This is my own story. Having recently retired from a consuming job as director of education and citizen science research at a nature center in Texas, this is a good time for me to reflect on one of my previous lives. I will do my best to get my facts straight.
I was in the first group of Health Advocate VISTA volunteers recruited to address "Hunger in America." Our training was in Austin, Texas and the rudimentary community organizing skills we learned were invaluable then, and have guided me throughout my most recent career as an environmental activist. Our group of Health Advocates was close and supportive of each other throughout our service in eastern Arkansas.
Four of us were sent to the Community Action Project (CAP) Agency in Forrest City directed by Mr. Clark. Two volunteers lived and worked in Wynne. Corinne Cass and I were assigned to Lee County. Corinne was a licensed practical nurse with medical surgical experience. I had a B.A. in biology, M.A. in entomology and had taught high school biology and chemistry for one year.
Our onsite training included living with local low-income families. After we started working, Corinne and I rented a small house on the south edge of Forrest City and moved to Marianna as soon as we could. As a "generalist" Health Advocate Volunteer recruited to address the problem of malnutrition, I was asked to teach nutrition classes in rural parts of the county. The concept made sense, but the visual aids for my use showed sparkling kitchens with bright white stoves and slender white women wearing starched white aprons. No leaky 50-gallon drum wood stove in a shotgun shack with newspaper on the walls for insulation. After the first embarrassment, I just couldn't do it. Human needs were more fundamental than nutritious cooking techniques.
We were inexperienced activists filled with the desire to help, to do something of value, to make change. Our training in Austin, Texas prepared us to focus on grassroots organization not routine service. We understood that to serve the poor of Lee County we needed to identify real problems, bring people together and empower community members to make their own decisions. Looking back, I see myself as a confused mixture of arrogant and humble, well trained and unprepared, overconfident and insecure. I was supercharged with the passion and energy of youth. That passion and Mountain Dew powered me through endless 12 and 14-hour days.
I credit Joe Bruch, some folks in Washington, Mr. Clark and Olly Neal for enabling us to be as successful as our commitment, passion and limited skills allowed. Joe was an unusual bureaucrat. He did not need to control and he was a charismatic speaker. After he spoke to our training group all of us wanted to go to Arkansas. No question! Joe also had an important fault: he could not say "no." Whenever resources were available or possible he said, "yes." And the Arkansas Health Advocates received support throughout our service. In addition, as we worked and learned and reported to our superiors, something we conveyed loosened Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) purse strings at regional VISTA and national Emergency Food and Medical Services (EFMS). More financial support and human resources became available to enable the community organization projects initiated by Health Advocate volunteers in Eastern Arkansas.
Mr. Clark was an exceptional CAP director and we knew it even then. I remember sitting in a claustrophobic room with his local staff very soon after our arrival. It was a space uncomfortable with anxiety and distrust. The local staff members were guarded and suspicious. We were bold and outspoken to the point of rudeness. Oh well, I was anyway. I still regret contradicting a middle-aged black man, who was not ready to stand up to a white woman and who deserved respect and support rather than my sanctimonious comment. I am grateful for Mr. Clark's centrist position, soothing personality and ability to live with our weaknesses. He made it possible for us to work together.
In contrast to Corinne, who continued as a doctor recruiter and nurse for 2-3 years after the clinic opened, much of my contribution to the LCCC was what I did before the first VISTA doctor arrived. Just getting him assigned to Marianna was a huge accomplishment for me and Corinne. Perhaps this January 2011 3 seems minor now but he could have gone to another county and the clinic would not be in Lee County today.
The following shows my consuming desire to get the VISTA doctor assigned to Lee County. I knew a very young pregnant woman, who ate dirt during her pregnancy. She or her mother dug it from the edge of a cotton field not too far from their shack outside of Marianna. She died in childbirth of eclampsia. This happened within a week of her attempt to get treatment from a doctor in Marianna. Her mother told me that her daughter had been turned away because she could not pay. Later, when I talked to the doctor he was defensive but sorry about what had happened. They both left me with the impression that her death was out of anyone's control — inevitable.
At the young woman's funeral, I learned that her 2-year old son was suffering from malnutrition and diarrhea. When I saw him, he was lethargic, had spindly arms and legs attached to a swollen belly and smelled awful. I worked like crazy to get him accepted into a program that would pay for his treatment in Little Rock.
He was there for 2 weeks, I think. When his grandmother and I went to pick him up, the little boy was standing in a crib, bouncing up and down on his feet and jabbering happily. As soon as he saw us, he plopped down and went quiet.
I was frowned upon in Marianna for seeing that the child received treatment. This one pitiful boy, who would likely "become malnourished again as soon as he returned to his grandmother", had eaten up nearly all of the money available to Lee County in this particular program. It "should have been spread out to help as many needy as possible." All of this told me that Lee County needed a doctor, who would minister to the poor, and a place where caretakers could benefit from meaningful health education.
When we heard that there would be a doctor in the next group of Arkansas Health Advocates, Corinne and I became obsessed with getting him assigned to Lee County. If it might have helped to lie, cheat or steal, we were ready. I'm not sure who made the final decision or even what part of our argument worked, but the first VISTA doctor Dan Blumenthal came to Lee County. As were the VISTA health professionals who followed, Dan was a vital January 2011 4 volunteer—resilient in the face of adversity and willing to get this feet muddy.
In the early days, I also spent much of my time recruiting and meeting with community leaders in different parts of the county. The goal was to organize groups that could support and guide formation of the clinic. I am so proud that it is still called the Lee County Cooperative Clinic because that is what we envisioned over 40 years ago: a community clinic guided through a collaboration of its constituents.
About this time Gene Richards and Charlie Imhoff, Health Advocate volunteers in Crittenden County, were physically assaulted. Because Gene and Charlie were outsiders and the white guys who beat them up were local, the FBI had to be brought in to investigate. This scared all of us. I was especially afraid on the long drives home alone at night after meetings. Corinne started taking her huge but peaceful dog with her in the backseat of her car. He just had to sit up and show his size to protect her.
When the newly organized clinic advertised for an administrator and Olly Neal applied, we could not believe our good fortune. Here was an energetic, fearless and articulate guy who could lead the way! He was clearly the RIGHT person for the job. And at the very least, we were happy that the new clinic was a vehicle to bring this man of many talents back home. The black funeral director Mr. Lacy Kennedy generously allowed the clinic, lab and pharmacy to be set up in a building he owned next to his funeral parlor in Marianna. I am pretty sure that it was rent-free. I remember his daughter inviting us on a tour of her Dad's place to see a real dead person. I am sure it was for shock value and to find out just how tough we were. I wasn't very tough and I didn't want to accept.
In the early days when Olly was director, the clinic met fierce opposition from the county's white establishment. It began with Lee Memorial Hospital's refusal to allow admitting privileges to the VISTA doctor. In the end, this irrational resistance to better health care worked in our favor and helped rally folks in support of the clinic. Obstruction to something so desperately needed and so benign as a community outpatient clinic raised political awareness and woke the sleeping disenfranchised. Poor folks in Lee County now knew without a doubt who cared enough to do something to help and who only pretended to care.
Today, I applaud the recent lawsuit that brought the clinic back to its foundation. Congratulations on facing the heat of this challenge and standing up for what you know to be right. Conflict is never easy. I admire your strength. I hope that the LCCC continues to be in touch with and better serve its constituency. It is important for this special place to be a creative and vibrant source of pride for everyone it touches. Stay on the creative edge, keep taking risks and don't be afraid of mistakes. In the early days, if we had been afraid of risks and mistakes, we would not have been successful. What you wish and work for now will be the future.
As Suzan-Lori Parks said to President-elect Obama in her poem, U Being U, "… I believe In the dream And I am ready To wake up And live it."