Jewish Community Free Clinic in Santa Rosa brightens patients' visits with art

The colorful artwork adoring the walls of the Jewish Community Free Clinic in Santa Rosa creates a far more inviting and calming atmosphere than anyone might anticipate at a health clinic.|

Can art heal?

Champions of what’s been called a miracle of a Santa Rosa health clinic can’t prove that the fine and vivid pieces of framed beauty that adorn the walls help to make the low-income patients better.

But good luck persuading them that it doesn’t.

“Art lifts the spirit of this place,” said Donna Waldman, director and co-founder of the Jewish Community Free Clinic on Montgomery Drive.

The operation runs on a shoestring - its budget is less than $300,000 a year - and it relies on the volunteer labor of doctors, nurses, translators and other staffers. Patients, a good many of them immigrants without health insurance, are charged nothing for the care they receive.

Given the austere nature of the mission, someone walking in the door might expect the waiting and reception areas, the halls and the exam rooms to be clinical and plain.

But for the donations by acclaimed Sonoma County artists Marsha Connell and Sally Baker, they would be.

It’s not coincidental that Connell, the landscape and abstract artist who chairs the county’s ArtTrails open-studio program, is married to Dr. Jerry Connell. The retired family doctor was an early volunteer medical director with the 15-year-old clinic.

Said his wife the artist, “I was always wishing I could do something for the clinic.”

She found that something when she perceived that the walls pleaded for art. Several of the 15 or so pieces Connell contributed are lavish landscapes of Sonoma County scenes.

The total effect is an environment far more inviting and calming than anyone would reasonably anticipate upon entering a free health clinic.

“Our medical offices should look exactly like any other medical offices,” Waldman said.

It helps that the building on Montgomery Drive, just west of Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, is not some beggarly space, but the smartly designed and well maintained former home of a prosthetics practice.

The clinic operated within a smaller location in Rohnert Park when the owners of the Montgomery Drive building did something grand two and a half years ago: they donated it for the benefit of people without health insurance or the ability to pay for health care.

“This is more than double what we had,” Waldman said of the space.

The Jewish Community Free Clinic is open about 25 hours a week, and its volunteers see between 1,500 and 2,000 patients a year. That’s 500 to 1,000 fewer patients than eight and nine years ago, when the recession was in force and the federal Affordable Care Act wasn’t yet enacted and offering coverage to the uninsured.

That law “has absolutely, positively helped many of our clients,” Waldman said. Yet, the clinic’s safety-net services continue to be essential to people who remain without health insurance, or who come down with a medical issue and don’t have a doctor to turn to.

Many impoverished people also look to the clinic for vaccines, prescription medications other than painkillers, pre-employment physicals and women’s health services. People who come in with chronic illnesses are referred to one of the county’s low-cost community health centers.

Though no one is charged for the care received at the Montgomery Drive clinic, Waldman said it often happens that grateful former patients will send in donations when they’re able to. The other operating funds come from philanthropic gifts and fundraisers.

Artist Connell is completing a large, colorful giving-tree painting that will be placed prominently at the clinic and will feature ceramic leaves, doves and poppies bearing the names of donors. The ceramics are being made by artist Leslie Gattmann of Sebastopol.

Connell said the model for the purple-hued tree in the painting is a great oak that stands near her Santa Rosa home and that has proven to be healing to her.

“We want to make this clinic a healing place,” she said, “and art is very healing.”

Sales of her giving-tree painting’s ceramic accoutrements will generate $90,000 for the Jewish Community Free Clinic. Once completed and hung, the tree painting and its personalized leaves, doves and poppies will indefinitely beautify a clinic wall.

A wine-and-food benefit on June 5 at Congregation Shomrei Torah on Bennett Valley Road will honor Connell and Gattmann for their creative contributions to the mission and raise additional dollars to sustain it.

Director Waldman said that ideally, the day will come when everyone is provided quality health care and the little miracle of a clinic will no longer be necessary. She added, “As long as we’re needed, we’re going to be here.”

And as long as the clinic exists, an abundance of art will surely be there to help patients feel welcomed and honored and, who knows, maybe even feel better.

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