New health clinic targets underserved population

Triad City Beat- by Eric Ginsburg

A new community-oriented health clinic is now open part-time in east Greensboro, with plans to expand hours and feed a holistic network of neighborhood health resources.

The full tour of Mustard Seed Community Health takes less than five minutes, and that’s including time allotted to discuss future plans for a playground and additional garden beds in the back of the building.

The office — a converted pastor’s residence next to New Hope Missionary Baptist Church in east Greensboro — is modest, backing up to the Maplewood Cemetery on English Street. But considering that much of the new health clinic’s plans extend beyond these four walls, it suits the start-up nonprofit’s needs.

Opening a small hallway closet, founder and Medical Director Beth Mulberry joked, “This is our IT department.” Around the corner and down several steps, she showed off the break room that doubles as storage for janitorial supplies. The building contains just one office space — with one of the two desks situated in an open closet doorway to maximize the room —unless you count the front desk and waiting area. A peek in the two exam rooms and a stop to look out at the back porch, back parking lot and three garden beds completes Mulberry’s tour.

But Mustard Seed isn’t supposed to be a glitzy new medical office or private practice; it’s a community health clinic in a neighborhood that hasn’t had its own physician in decades, she said.

This community known as Cottage Grove stands midway between North Carolina A&T University’s main campus and the joint nanoscience school, encompassing the area around Hampton Elementary. Most of the residents are black, Mulberry said, followed by immigrants and refugees from southeast Asia. There’s a pocket of Burmese residents nearby too, and the clinic is bringing a predominantly Latino clientele with it, she added.

The Cottage Grove neighborhood suffers from one of the highest rates of hospitalization and emergency-room visits as well as cases of asthma, diabetes and heart disease, she said. Those are just some of the reasons Mustard Seed opted to open in the community.

To fully understand Mustard Seed, it helps to know Mulberry. She moved to the area in 2000 after working in remote areas of Alaska, operating a private practice locally until 2007 when she joined the now-defunct Healthserve Community Health Clinic providing healthcare access to those without coverage. And for the last two and a half years, as Mustard Seed took root, she helped operate a sort of pop-up clinic for immigrants and refugees in conjunction with FaithAction International House near the organization’s downtown office at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church.

Now, with a predominantly Latino client base, Mustard Seed has opened its doors in east Greensboro. Plans to open part time for three additional days per week are imminent, pending some issues with electronic record keeping, Mulberry said.

Mustard Seed will provide integrated primary medical and behavioral healthcare — in other words, all that a regular primary care facility would provide for people of all ages as well as behavioral resources, including a plans for a licensed, clinical social worker. The goal is to expand medical care to those who haven’t had access to it and focus on preventative steps to avoid catastrophic health events, Mulberry said. Plus, it will dramatically reduce costs for patients by preventing emergency room visits through better access to care, she said.

The organization is also a part of the National Association of Free & Charitable Clinics, and receives funding from local churches, individual donors, grants, and foundations including one affiliated with Cone Health and the Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro, Mulberry said.

Though a more informal version of the clinic operated at Holy Trinity, Mustard Seed is still in its early stages. But the clinic is already connected to students with the registered nursing to bachelor of science nursing program at UNCG and social work students at UNCG and A&T. Moving forward, Mulberry said the clinic will be able to pilot a program for one to three community health workers who will likely be assisted by local students to extend Mustard Seed’s reach into the surrounding community with home visits and a variety of wrap-around services.

By taking a more holistic view of healthcare that includes safe housing, food access, education and employment, Mulberry hopes that the clinic can be a force for broader neighborhood change. With the help of members of her church — the Congregational United Church of Christ — and New Hope, Mulberry is already a part of an educational and healthy breakfast program at Hampton Elementary.

Working alongside local groups including the Cottage Grove Initiative and the Greensboro Housing Coalition, Mustard Seed has started forming a nexus of community outreach to address problems such as black mold and connect residents to resources such as food pantries and a GED program.

Ultimately the goal is to help people do for self, with a newly formed neighborhood association, a possible PTA and community health workers hired out of the neighborhood building greater community power. Mulberry hopes that she, and Mustard Seed, can play an integral role in catalyzing it, and remain part of a more cohesive community once it’s under way.

Despite the skills of Mustard Seed’s staff, its existing connections and Mulberry’s ambitions, projects of this magnitude require tremendous funding, dedication and community support. But this is what needs to be done, Mulberry said. After all, you can’t just treat chronic disease forever, she said — at some point, you need to get down to the root.