It's not what you expect.
If you thought that people who have to rely on free health care probably find it in weary, worn quarters, that the services they get aren't quite top drawer, then step into the Lackey Free Clinic. It's new, and it sparkles with up-to-date equipment and colors and an undeniably upbeat vibe. Sun pours through the high windows, flooding the interior with light. Staff are smiling, and there's hugging. It's like any family practice - only maybe more attractive, more welcoming, with a bigger measure of joy.
But where they work, health insurance isn't offered or is so expensive they can't afford it. The average cost for a family policy is more than $11,700 a year - more than a minimum-wage worker brings home.
And if you think social needs are corralled in inner cities, think again. The 1,000-plus patients who in 2008 will come to this clinic live in York and James City counties and Williamsburg, as well as Newport News.
They come to the Lackey Free Clinic because they're sick, or they couldn't afford the medicine for a chronic condition and it's getting worse. They come because a hospital referred them, or they learned about the clinic from word of mouth.
Many are embarrassed at finding themselves here because they've always worked and they're proud of taking care of themselves and their families. What they find is that just because they don't have insurance cards in their pockets, it doesn't mean they don't get good care in a great place, with their dignity intact.
The Lackey Free Clinic will upend your notions about what caring for the uninsured and the poor can look like and feel like. And that can be traced to James and Patricia "Cooka" Shaw.
From dozens of nominations from readers, the Daily Press Editorial Board has selected the Shaws as Citizens of the Year for 2007. The award comes with a $1,000 donation to the charity of their choice.
'LEAST OF THESE MY BRETHREN'
A glance around the clinic, or a little time spent here, will leave no doubt about why it was born or why it operates the way it does. Because it isn't just a provider of services, it's a calling, to the Shaws, who launched and still shepherd it, and to many of those whose efforts make it a success.
Painted on the wall on the multipurpose kitchen, workroom, breakroom and conference room are the words that sparked this medical ministry. They're from the part in the gospel of Matthew in which Christ says that, come the Judgment Day, the kingdom of heaven will be inherited by those who, in serving the hungry and thirsty, the stranger and the prisoner and the sick, served him: "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me."
It was while Jim Shaw, a pulmonary specialist with the Intensive Care Unit at Riverside Regional Medical Center, was reading this passage that "a light bulb went off."
He asked himself, "How can I serve Christ?" and found the answer, "I can do it by serving the poor."
That proved easier vowed than done. Offers to help at a couple of clinics didn't even get a call back. Then a chaplain in training at Riverside suggested, "Look in Lackey," a part of York County with more than its share of poverty and pain, and sent him to the Rising Sun Baptist Church there.
Here Shaw's offer met fertile ground, but it was slow to grow. The clinic started in 1995, meeting one evening a week in a Sunday School room with a handful of volunteers serving a handful of patients. The next year, York County welcomed it to the new community center at Charles Brown Park. Then in 1997, cancer forced Shaw to close the clinic for a few months. He and Cooka contemplated giving it up, but gradually, more patients came, enough to add a second night - enough finally, that a full-time, fully equipped clinic was needed to care for them.
The fruits of the Shaws' perseverance now have an address: 1620 Old Williamsburg Road, not far from the Naval Weapons Station. The money to purchase the land was a gift from the York County Volunteer Association. Fundraisers brought in enough that when the new building opened in 2003, it did so debt-free.
What began as a Thursday-night clinic with equipment lugged around in a cardboard box is now a five-day-a-week operation. It has added dental care and critical specialties, including gynecology, ophthalmology, rheumatology, cardiology and pediatrics.
And the need keeps growing. The patient-visit count nearly doubled between 2004 and 2006 and rose another 27 percent in 2007 to 5,300. Every week brings 25 or 30 new patients, and Jim Shaw expects that trend to continue. There are, he estimates, 160,000 people in the greater Peninsula area who meet the qualifications for free care because they're uninsured and their incomes are less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level.