Environmental & Community Health Health Care & Public Health

The Berkeley Free Clinic Still Going Strong

Walking along Durant Ave. past Dana St., you might have noticed a red van parked near a church to your right with a badass logo on the side looking like something out of Harry Potter. I know I did.

Curious about this little magical-looking van labeled “Berkeley Free Clinic,” I began to do some research online and decided to interview a staff member to get some inside perspective on the awesomeness.

“Our motto is: we work with you to help you create solutions in your life,” began my interview with Cynthia Cox, a Cal alumna and volunteer at the Berkeley Free Clinic since 2003.

In case you haven’t heard of the Berkeley Free Clinic, the BFC is a volunteer-based collective that’s been providing free medical and counseling services to anyone and everyone—with an emphasis on low income and uninsured individuals—within the Berkeley community and East Bay area for the past 44 years. Needless to say, you should have heard of it!

And how is this relevant to you as a student?

According to Cynthia, though the clinic encourages students with SHIP insurance to take advantage of the Tang Center’s resources, they refuse service to no one, and welcome all who would feel more comfortable receiving treatment at the BFC. Keep in mind that the BFC’s services are limited, however. Though the BFC has had a successful year of fundraising, it remains solely dependent on private donations and government grants for funding (many of which were lost with the onset of the recession).

That being said, Cynthia was excited to announce that the BFC has managed to expand its services over the past three years despite these obstacles.

In addition to hosting the Gay Men’s Collective, a Sunday clinic providing HIV testing and sexual health counseling for men, the BFC has launched Saturday Services for women and transgender individuals with similar sexual health services as well as reproductive care. In fact, most recently, the clinic has been able to expand this program to include full gynecologist services like pelvic exams and pap smears. How was this possible with the decrease in funding, you say? Volunteers!

“We’ve managed to recruit a gynecologist and now we can begin to see symptomatic patients for the first time. Before, we could only see those without symptoms,” explained Cynthia.

In fact, the Berkeley Free Clinic is mostly dependent on volunteers for its daily services, with 200-250 active volunteers at any given time—a significant portion of which are students.

And why would someone want to volunteer at such a crammed space? (The clinic is stationed at a church basement though it serves over 12,000 clients a year.)

“Volunteering at the clinic is great for those of us who are interested in providing care, understanding challenges in accessing care, and giving back to our community,” exclaimed Cynthia, adding on a more personal note, “As a molecular cell biology student with such a large major, it was hard to feel plugged into a larger community, but the clinic gave me that and allowed me to make life-long friends. And being a collectively-run clinic, we all make the decisions together. “

Cynthia informed me that the clinic currently offers many volunteer positions for students of diverse interests. Whether you like health or business, speak another language, or just want to learn more about non-profit management and grant-writing, they could use your services!

But what about that magical red van I mentioned earlier?

The Berkeley Free Clinic might be limited by their placement in a church basement, but that doesn’t stop them from reaching out far and wide to provide their services. And that’s where the van comes in!

Equipped with two exam rooms, the van is taken for a spin around Berkeley and the East Bay to provide free HIV testing and outreach at various locations. In addition, the Berkeley Free Clinic collaborates with countless other organizations, including homeless shelters, non-profits, and the Tang Center to improve community health and empower individuals to help themselves through health education.

One of the BFC’s most recent projects is the Berkeley Builds Capacity project in which they partner with the Tang Center to provide sexual health care and counseling around the community and nearby counties, aiming to decrease the rate of HIV and substance abuse particularly among MSM students of color.

And of course, I couldn’t interview a volunteer in the health field without asking about ObamaCare!

When asked how this health care reform would impact the BFC, Cynthia replied,

“Most major provisions that will affect our clients won’t be taking place until 2014. Since about 60% of our clients are below poverty level, they will be eligible for Medicaid. Others will be getting subsidies. It will take about 3 years for us to see a shift in clients, however. We expect to see less people overall, but a greater portion of undocumented immigrants since ObamaCare excludes them.”

If you would like to learn more about such inaccessibility, you can take Public Health 14, a class launched by the Berkeley Builds Capacity project as well to increase awareness about community health, or better yet—volunteer at the Berkeley Free Clinic and get some hands on experience!


Article by Amy Mostafa

Feature Image Source: Wikipedia