For many of our neighborhood’s Hispanic residents, this is a place where they’re welcomed, listened to and cared for
Valeria’s parents came to the States from Mexico, seeking a better life. Neither of them spoke English, and making ends meet was difficult.
So when Valeria’s mom and dad become concerned about her development, there were few places to turn. They couldn’t afford health insurance, but Valeria, who was born in Mexico, also didn’t qualify for Medicaid. So they brought her to Agape Clinic, a volunteer-run clinic operated in the basement of Grace United Methodist Church at Junius and Haskell.
One of the clinic’s volunteer pediatricians, Patrick McGrory, examined Valeria, who was then just barely a toddler, and confirmed the fears of her parents: There was something seriously wrong — Valeria had cerebral palsy.
In the years since that diagnosis, her family’s economic conditions haven’t changed much. What has changed is the level of care Valeria receives, and that’s in large part because of the hardworking people who run the clinic.
Agape was founded in 1983 by Dr. Bobbie Baxter. Until a few years ago, it was only open on Saturdays and, says longtime volunteer Kathryn Marshall, the doctors and nurses there “dealt mainly with colds, flus, allergies. “To be honest,” says Marshall, who became the clinic’s director earlier this year, “it was kind of running out of steam.”
But then, neighborhood residents Charles and Leslie Kemp came onboard and breathed new life into it. The Kemps were not new to clinic work. Charles, a nurse practitioner who teaches at Baylor Hospital, and Leslie, a retired social worker, had worked in a number of volunteer capacities since moving to our neighborhood in 1981.
“We volunteered with Cambodian refuges. We were involved in starting the East Dallas Health Center on Live Oak. We had a clinic on Bryan — what’s now the East Dallas Police store front,” Charles says. “So we kind of evolved into this. We’ve had several moves, and we ended up at Agape about four years ago.”
The clinic is now open three days a week, with home and school visits made one additional day a week. There are more volunteers and both full-time and part-time employees than ever before, which translates into more patients.
That fact is reflected in the sheer number of people who rely upon the clinic. People often line up at dawn, waiting for the doors to open. Last year, Marshall says, the clinic saw more than 5,600 patients and vaccinated 1,800 children.
It’s also visible in the commitment of the clinic’s many volunteers — people such as Harriet Zumwalt, an 82-year-old staunch Democrat and retired nurse who minces few words. Or Jenny Hironaga, a quiet, 17-year-old homeschooler who scored a perfect 1,600 on her SATs and plans to go to medical school. Or some Baylor nursing students, for whom Agape Clinic has become as much an education as the classroom.
“It’s really all for the love of the work, and our patients,” Marshall says of the volunteers’ dedication. “We’re a really weird mix of people here — we have Evangelical Christians, intellectual Christians, skeptics, agnostics, pagans, Jews, straights and gays — but we tolerate each other with humor and grace, and we really have a great time.”
And then there are the patients.
Most of the people who walk through Agape’s door are Hispanic — Mexicans and Mexican-Americans who are either too poor to afford health insurance or have little idea how to use the insurance they have — who live in our neighborhood and the surrounding community. Some of Agape’s patients have symptoms that are easy to treat — a skin rash or common cold. Other times, the symptoms, both physically and emotionally, are much more serious. Rape cases. Undiagnosed cancer. People with Type I diabetes and no idea how to manage the disease.
Leslie Kemp often acts as a patient’s first point of contact in the clinic, helping those who don’t speak any English or who have trouble navigating the health-care system get appointments, file insurance claims, fill out paperwork and so on.
“It doesn’t take a great brain. It takes persistence and willingness, and I have both of those things,” she says of her job. “Often people just have been turned away for some reason that can be easily fixed. I love to win on behalf of these people.”
Sometimes, though, there are no easy fixes. The patient is impoverished, without insurance and, often, in bad need of medical attention.
And often, when this is the case, Lupe Springer becomes involved. Springer, says Marshall, is the clinic’s “heart and soul.”
Four years ago, Springer started as an Agape volunteer, acting as a translator for Spanish-speaking only patients. She was shy, but she was also hardworking and had a knack for connecting with those the clinic serves.
“She kept showing up and showing up and showing up,” Charles Kemp says. “But every hour she worked for us was another hour she wasn’t making money.”
Kemp was so impressed with her dedication that he eventually found the money to give her a paying job. Today, Springer is Agape’s main promotora, or lay health promoter (until recently, she was the only one who held this position — the clinic recently brought on three part-time promotoras in September).
Part of the reason Springer is so good at her job is because she’s been where many of her patients are now. She came to the U.S. 17 years ago with her husband and her son, Luis.
“I know the struggles people go through,” says Springer, whose husband died earlier this year (her son is now 21 years old and studying civil engineering at UT-Arlington).
Though her job is multi-faceted — she’s trained to read basic vital signs, teach patients about their medications, recognize chronic conditions — the most satisfying part of her job is a program she started three years ago called Creations of Faith.
Two days a week, a group of neighborhood women come to the church and file into a small room on an upper floor. The room is filled with craft items — yarn, ribbons, bows — and Springer, who before becoming Agape’s promotora earned her money making crafts, teaches the women how to make things such as decorative pictures frames and baskets. While they work, they gossip. Often, they’ll stop for Bible study or pray together.
“We share happiness and sickness and laugh a lot,” Springer says. “For me, it’s enough to be with my son and to be doing what I can here. This is my life, being a mother and working with the community.”
“It’s kind of like a little Mexico up there,” Marshall says. “Lupé does a lot of spiritual counseling. A lot of these women have just recently come to the U.S., and they’re lost and scared and don’t really know what’s going on.”
It’s programs like this that makes Agape much more than just a free health clinic.
“There are a lot of free medical clinics around Dallas that do wonderful work,” Marshall says. “But we’re unique because we’ve got an integration of comprehensive services. We understand that healing is a complex and sometimes mysterious process, so we try to address the mind, body and soul. And beyond that, we really try to heal the community, to reach out to them, make them feel welcome here.”
So, while people do come to see doctors and get medication, they also come for advice on exercise, diet, parenting and more.
“The medicine we provide is wonderful,” Kemp says, “but there’s more to it than just taking medicine.”
“It’s kind of a refuge for them,” Marshall says.
And it’s because of this sanctuary-like atmosphere that Agape Clinic, which doesn’t receive any state or federal funding, continues to thrive when other non-profits are shutting down.
The clinic, with annual operating expenses of about $90,000, relies on foundation grants and donations to stay afloat. And the community, Marshall says, has been supportive. A recent direct-mail fundraising campaign yielded more than $15,000 in donations.
But that doesn’t mean they couldn’t use more help.
“Once a week, once a month, if that’s all people can commit to, that would be great,” says nurse Kay Dial, who will become chairperson of Agape’s board in January. “We can always use administrative or clerical help. We can always use people who want to come in and translate.”
One volunteer recently noted in the clinic’s brochure: “One thing is sure: When you’re involved with Agape, you won’t question if your life has meaning.” It’s a statement Charles Kemps echoes when he describes why he has done this type of volunteer work for more than 20 years.
“It’s a great luxury to be able to have the time and energy to invest in my community,” he says. “I fought in Vietnam — I was in combat for 13 months. There was never a day we didn’t get shot at. Never a day somebody didn’t get wounded or killed. So I’m truly dedicated to not wasting my life, and I feel an acute sense that there’s not a moment to be lost. I’m grateful for my life … that I’m alive and able to do this.”
Volunteering is a sacrifice, Marshall says, but one that won’t be taken for granted.
“They’re wonderful people, our patients,” she says. “They don’t hesitate to express gratitude for the services we provide.”
Especially patients like Valeria and her parents. Leslie Kemp recently worked with Valeria’s teacher to secure a wheelchair for her, on loan from the United Cerebral Palsy organization.
“A pink wheelchair,” clarifies Charles Kemp. “How cool is that for a little girl?”
“She loves it,” Leslie says, and adds of the family: “Oh, they were thrilled.”
Agape Clinic needs both volunteers and donations. Call Kathryn Marshall at 214-929-6488 or 214-826-7235 about volunteering or donating medication and supplies. Or for cash donations, mail a check to: Agape Clinic, 4105 Junius, Dallas 75246.
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