Sister Micheala champions the needs of southwest Santa Rosa
By Bruce Robinson
“It was a no-brainer.” Sister Micheala Rock says the decision to create a health center for the residents of southwest Santa Rosa was made almost as soon as she saw an “asset map” of the services and public amenities distributed throughout the city. “There just were no services in this quadrant of the city,” she continues, still distressed by the fact, “but this is where most of the low-income population is.”
That area, bounded on the north and east by the broad concrete barrier of freeways that separate it from the rest of the city, is home to around 20,000 people now, a population that is slated to grow dramatically over the next decade or two as new residential development is channeled into it. Recognizing the existing needs, as well as their probable intensification, Sister Micheala has, for the past two years, focused her attention, her energy, and her considerable powers of persuasion on the goal of building a healthy community in this often overlooked corner of the city.
A member of the Catholic order of Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange, which owns Memorial Hospital, Sister Micheala arrived in Santa Rosa on Christmas Day 1993 and immediately began looking for a need to fill. By this time, the former schoolteacher and principal had also worked her way through a series of hospital administrative positions and was ready for something new. “I’m not of the personality to do things over and over again,” she says modestly, although she is quick to admit that a common thread links all her past and present endeavors–“finding a way to provide services to people, improving their lot in life.”
Having tired of conventional hospital work (“I don’t want to spend my life with doctors,” she confides), Sister Micheala happened upon the notion of “community health” shortly before coming to Sonoma County, and “I just clicked on that concept.” Loosely defined, it extends far beyond health care to encompass environmental, educational, transportation, and economic considerations. And in southwest Santa Rosa, Sister Rock found fertile ground for the concept.
“These people are wanting to be a community and have a lot going for them: they have a significant amount of pride in and satisfaction with where they live, and they are open to improving the quality of life in their neighborhoods.” Only 20 percent of the residents are members of ethnic communities–Hispanic and Asian, primarily–and there is little racial tension. Although the population density is generally high, Sister Michaela contends that “high density is a positive” because it can foster tolerance and a healthy interdependency.
Drawing on resources from Memorial Hospital and other sources, she established the Community Benefit Program, working from a plain but cheerful office in a newish industrial complex near Cook Jr. High School to offer a range of interrelated services to schoolchildren, uninsured mothers, seniors, and youth. One of her first projects was the creation of the newly opened health clinic on the campus of Elsie Allen High School. “I knew that 55 percent of the kids had no access to health care,” Sister Micheala shrugs. “It was kind of a natural.” But the biggest area of demand at the high school clinic is for mental health services. “There are some significantly deep problems,” she says, noting that at a recent open house, the literature on suicide prevention disappeared far faster than brochures on any other subject.
A second school-based clinic is in the works for the Roseland Elementary School, and junior high-age kids will be able to visit the new Community Health Center a few doors down from the Community Benefit office when it opens its doors early next year. “Our goal is that by the spring of 1996 every youngster involved in school in the southwest will have access to medical care,” Sister Rock says confidently.
Like the Elise Allen clinic, the health center is being supported by Memorial Hospital at first, but will have to become self-sufficient over its first few years. “If they stick with the business plan, they should be on their feet in a year,” Sister Michaela says firmly. Staffed by a bilingual, multicultural team of doctors and nurses, the Health Center will also house the dental clinic Memorial now supports at a homeless shelter near Railroad Square.
Sister Michaela hopes the whole enterprise will help buffer the southwest area against the incipient upheavals in the nationwide health-care industry. “The delivery of medical care in this country is a mess, and it’s going to get worse before it gets better,” she says grimly. “What keeps me going is the hope that what we’re doing here will help bridge that gap.”
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