50 years ago, a young mom started this now nationally recognized health center in Lincoln Heights
Community health centers have become the ideal source for information during the pandemic, with familiar and trusted professionals on hand to answer questions. Ohio's first community health center is in the Village of Lincoln Heights, and its success reaches far beyond the small Black community's borders.
When Lincoln Heights was finally allowed to incorporate in 1946, it was without the industrial tax base it should have had. About 20 years later, the community had grown but still lacked adequate health care.
Delores Lindsay was a young mother active in the PTA at the time. She says Hamilton County would send a doctor to the village once a week to care for young kids, but there were no doctors practicing in the community.
"Women would often show up in the emergency room ready to deliver without prenatal care," Lindsay said.
Lindsay ended up leading the effort to improve access to health care. She co-founded the Lincoln Heights Health Center in 1967, the first community health center in Ohio and one of just 10 across the country. The group had six volunteers, a $10,000 grant from the then-city of Lincoln Heights, and donated space in the form of a four-room apartment.
Doctors and dentists volunteered their time, coming in from Lockland, Woodlawn and Cincinnati to staff the center.
"Were it not for them, I'm not sure that this center would be in existence today," Lindsay said. "We started this project on a prayer, a belief that we could do it. We knew that it was needed, and we set out to try to get the necessary resources to make it happen."
Resources didn't come easily. The clinic was unable to receive payment from the welfare department even though about half of patients qualified, according to a Cincinnati Enquirer article in 1970.
"Like most of its patients, the small health center is out of money," the article said. "The Lincoln Heights Clinic is incorporated, but apparently it is not incorporated under the appropriate state statute [to receive welfare payment]."
The doctors and dentists were already volunteering their time, but the article says non-professional staff depended on a paycheck to make a living.
Lindsay sought out local, state and federal grants, as well as non-profit funding. The center quickly doubled in size, moving to a newly constructed community building in 1972.
A shutdown in 1979 highlighted the importance of the health center. A fire at the community facilities building forced the health center to close for more than a month. Ernest Ector, a health center board member, told the Enquirer the center has been "a real source of pride in the community."
The center provided critical care in more ways than one; in 1983, city officials were dealing with a fiscal emergency and asked the health center to temporarily take over management of the community building.
The organization's expansion outside of Lincoln Heights began about 20 years after its founding, with the opening of the Mt. Healthy Family Practice Center in 1987.
"It has never been tunnel vision," said LaVerne Mitchell, current chair of the health center board. "It has always been the need to provide quality health care to individuals. They may have started off just in this little small community, but it was never meant to be just for us."
The health center has expanded into half a dozen locations, rebranding as The HealthCare Connection. A new building opened in 2004 and now houses offices and the original Lincoln Heights Health Center.
Both Lindsay and the health center are nationally recognized. The U.S. Department of Health selected the center for the "Models That Work" competition in 1995, one of just five awards out of more than 200 applicants. The award gave special recognition to a collaborative with the UC Medical Center in which a third of all UC medical students spent at least a month training at the Lincoln Heights Health Center.
Lindsay led the organization for 53 years before retiring in 2020.
"[Lindsay] has been a pioneer and really paved the way for many of us in our careers," said new CEO Jolene Joseph. "We still look to her for a lot of support."
Pandemic hasn't slowed growth
Joseph started the job about a year ago, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. She says the community health model is a one-stop-shop, kind of like a Super Walmart with everything under one roof.
"We're talking physical health or medical, oral health, behavioral health, care coordination, case management, outreach and enrollment," Joseph said.
Joseph says community health centers were well-equipped to respond to the pandemic, especially when vaccines became available.
"Because there has been a level of trust, and many times they see the team members out in the community in the evenings and on the weekends — and so we are one of them," Joseph said. "They can ask the questions and they can anticipate that the answers that they are going to receive are based on science, they're based on fact and that they can then make their decisions based on that information."
That trust is something Natasha Nutter sees in her work every day. She was a community health worker in her hometown at the Lincoln Heights Center for a few years before moving to the new Mt. Healthy location to be a case manager.
"When I was at the Lincoln Heights location, and I saw somebody that I recognize, they just seem like they will light up," Nutter said. "And that, to me, just says that they trust that the people here are really wanting to do what's best for them and their health, not just here for money."
Just the opposite, in fact – Joseph says community health centers are an economic engine.
"That means we're creating jobs, that means that we are paying taxes in those communities," Joseph said.
The pandemic hasn't slowed growth. A new building for the Mt. Healthy center opened last fall, and a new school-based health center is starting in Mt. Healthy soon.
Delores Lindsay says it's important to remember this all started in the Village of Lincoln Heights.
"Because it's always been viewed as a community that it was not very well spoken about in the broader community," Lindsay said. "But I think that what we have been able to do within this health center, to generate the respect and the confidence the center has, really is something that I am extremely proud of."
Lindsay says she would do it all over again, but perhaps a little differently.
"Because I have more knowledge," she said. "I didn't have any knowledge at that time; I was just a mom and a wife seeking to provide help to bring services to a community that did not have it."
Last year the centers helped 17,000 unique patients across nearly 32,000 visits, and a new school-based health center is set to open in Mt. Healthy soon.
The organization has provided nearly 17,000 COVID-19 vaccines so far. Last year the six centers had nearly 32,000 visits.
Learn more about the health center's history below: