‘A match made in heaven’

Catholic Charities, St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic partner to provide health care in Scott Co.

By Bill Brewer

Catholic Charities of East Tennessee and St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic are partnering on a unique ministry that provides a shot in the arm to health care in Scott County, which has joined the ranks of rural areas where the dedicated practice of medicine is at risk.

The leaders of St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic and Catholic Charities announced on Sept. 20 at St. Jude Church in the Helenwood community of Scott County that they are combining resources to offer free health care to the uninsured in the area.

It marks the first time that Catholic Charities and St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic have offered joint services at one location.

Sandi Davidson of Catholic Charities of East Tennessee stands in front of the diocesan social services agency’s newest Pregnancy Help Center in Helenwood in Scott County.

“It’s a match made in heaven. It is the perfect coming together of the right resources, the right services at the right time to meet the need in the community. We want to make sure that we do serve the local community here. We’re very excited to be involved and welcomed to Scott County and to be able to meet that critical need,” said Martin Vargas, executive director of St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic.

Lisa Healy, executive director of Catholic Charities of East Tennessee, said the Diocese of Knoxville social services agency has been working with St. Jude since early 2021 to convert the parish rectory into space for Catholic Charities’ sixth Pregnancy Help Center.

The remodeling was completed late last year, and the Pregnancy Help Center began assisting mothers and fathers in December. At the same time, discussions were taking place to bring the mobile clinic to Helenwood, where there has been an acute health-care shortage.

Scott County announced in 2016 that its only hospital was closing because the hospital’s parent company was filing for bankruptcy. However, a buyer stepped in and purchased the facility later that year. The Oneida hospital, which had previously closed in 2012, has operated as Big South Fork Medical Center since August 2017.

The 25-bed hospital first opened in 1955 as Scott County Community Hospital. Its limited offerings include an emergency room, radiology, respiratory treatment, and laboratory and inpatient services. Rural hospitals across the United States have been closing at an alarming rate and are at increasing risk for closure due to skyrocketing health-care costs, especially in lower-income areas that are not densely populated.

The interruptions in medical care sent shock waves through the Scott community, stoking many residents’ fears that they no longer had access to professional care.

“There’s a great need, and it’s a real blessing to be here in Scott County to serve this community,” Mrs. Healy said. “We really believe that this is all founded on what Christ asks us to do, and that is to remember that we all belong to each other, and we all have a responsibility to every soul to create community and life that helps people live the best lives that they can.”

St. Jude Church in Helenwood and the former rectory building that now houses Catholic Charities and the St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic.

While Scott County becomes a new destination for St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic, Catholic Charities is expanding coverage in the rural Cumberland Mountains area. Catholic Charities already operates Pregnancy Help Centers in Newcomb and LaFollette in neighboring Campbell County.

Catholic Charities serves those in need throughout East Tennessee in urban and rural areas.

St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic serves only rural communities in Grainger, Meigs, Cumberland, McMinn, and Sevier counties. It also serves uninsured immigrant communities in the Knoxville area.

Mrs. Healy and Mr. Vargas expressed their excitement at working together in Helenwood.

“We feel like with our Pregnancy Help Center and the work we do here with crisis pregnancies, moms who are pregnant, pregnancy testing, and now full-service adoption, then we add the clinical health component with St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic, it really brings a great opportunity to serve this community,” Mrs. Healy said.

“When you get outside of Knoxville in this rural Appalachia area, we’re in Newcomb, we’re in LaFollette, and now we are here in Scott County. It’s a lower social-economic community. There aren’t a lot of services like in our larger communities such as Knoxville, Chattanooga, and the Tri-Cities,” she added.

Mrs. Healy credited Bishop Richard F. Stika and Deacon Sean Smith, Diocese of Knoxville chancellor and chief operating officer, for making the St. Jude rectory building available to Catholic Charities and St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic.

In the remodeling process, space was created in the former rectory that can be used as treatment and waiting rooms for the clinic in the event the mobile clinic van is at another site. When the van is on-site at St. Jude, it sets up in the parking lot behind the church adjacent to the Pregnancy Help Center.

SMLC staff, from left, Ms. Vinyard, Ms. Brach, Mr. Vargas, Sister Celeste Mary, Susan Lawlor, and Sister Mary Lisa.

Sister Mary Lisa Renfer, RSM, who is medical director of the St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic and is one of the physicians who will be providing medical care in Scott County, said the St. Jude Parish community has wanted the clinic to come to Helenwood for some time.

“There has been a need in Scott County for quite a while for primary health care. This is one of the many counties that was affected by rural hospital closures, so they’ve been talking to us for several years, asking if we could come to Scott County,” Sister Mary Lisa said.

“It wasn’t the right time before when we’ve been asked. This last time, they asked us over a year ago if we would be willing to come out here because there’s a growing need in the area, and we would be able to serve that need,” she added. “With our growing group of volunteers, with our growing staff, we decided that this is a good time to come out here and be able to serve this community.”

Sister Mary Lisa believes the new collaborative ministry is as much a blessing to Catholic Charities and St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic as it is to Scott County.

“The providence of God, with Catholic Charities working with the (St. Jude) church community to start their pregnancy resource center has been great because we’re really building a partnership with them. Every place we’re going we’re really trying to build this concept of working with partners so that we can provide wraparound care,” Sister Mary Lisa said.

“So, it’s not just medical care. We’re helping to connect patients with other services they may need. The fact that Catholic Charities is here, and how much that they provide for the community wherever they go is a great gift. We’re hoping to really work with them so that we can serve not just the medical needs but also the other physical needs of our patients here and also build this church community here. We’re excited about that,” she continued.

As Catholic Charities and St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic work to establish traction in the communities of Scott County, Mrs. Healy said it is important for residents to know that 99.5 percent of the people served by those ministries throughout East Tennessee are not Catholic.

She noted that in addition to the Pregnancy Help Center and Legacy Clinic, Catholic Charities plans to bring its Hope Kitchen to Helenwood. Hope Kitchen provides free nutritious meals to those in need.

Sandi Davidson, Catholic Charities’ Pregnancy Services program leader, said Catholic Charities and the Diocese of Knoxville have known for some time about the needs that area has, especially when it comes to health care for pregnant women.

Mrs. Davidson has specific goals for the Helenwood center, although she understands that it will take time to build community support.

“We have always known that Scott County had very limited resources. When we were contacted about the rectory being available for a program of Catholic Charities, we thought of a Pregnancy Help Center. There are no hospitals in the area to deliver their babies; the closest is an hour away. We hope the more we can educate and provide services, the better the outcome for both mother and baby,” Mrs. Davidson said.

“Our hope for Helenwood Pregnancy Help Center is that we will grow to meet the needs of the people in this area, to educate through our Earn While You Learn program on pregnancy, parenting, life skills, and fatherhood, and to provide material assistance and community referrals. Collaborating with St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic will only enhance the service that will be available to the people of this community,” she pointed out.

Mrs. Davidson credited the members of St. Jude Parish and Father Tom O’Connell for assisting with the St. Jude rectory renovations and emphasized that Catholic Charities is pleased with how well the remodeling turned out.

“We wanted to provide a beautiful place where people could come and find a calm, welcoming place where they feel valued and get the help they need,” she continued. “We are very excited about collaborating with St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic. The Pregnancy Help Center and St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic are a perfect fit. Anything we can do to work hand in hand to serve the residents of Scott County is something we definitely want to do.”

Catholic Charities’ Lisa Healy and SMLC’s Martin Vargas are joined by from left, Sister Mary Lisa Renfer, RSM, Sister Celeste Mary Poche, RSM, Brianna Vinyard, and Kim Brach.

The Pregnancy Help Center is open Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. The Legacy Clinic will operate in Helenwood once a month. Patients who can’t get to the clinic can still speak to Legacy Clinic doctors and nurses via online links.

“We are very committed to Scott County in providing this care. We provide holistic primary care. We’re not a pop-up clinic. We’ll be here every month on the third Tuesday of each month. I want to let the people of Scott County we will be treating know that we also provide telehealth, so that is part of the continuity of care that we provide,” Mr. Vargas said.

“If you are pregnant and you need to see the doctor, that is taken care of with the clinic and then you can move over to the Pregnancy Help Center, where we can fulfill education needs with over 200 classes in two languages, resources such as diapers, formula, cribs, car seats, pregnancy testing, and now adoption. We’re very excited about building families, building healthy families with our partners at St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic,” Mrs. Healy added.

Mr. Vargas emphasized the role volunteers play in operating the Legacy Clinic each day. He said anyone in the Scott County area interested in volunteering with the clinic in Helenwood can contact the ministry at smlcares.com.

Mrs. Healy urged East Tennessee Catholics to get involved in the ministries. She said people can find out more about Catholic Charities at ccetn.org.

“We need the Catholic community to know that you can’t just sit in the pew. You need to reach out and you need to work together. Whatever resources Catholic Charities has, we’re sharing them. We’re sharing them at the parish. We’re sharing them with St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic. I can’t tell you how important we feel that is. We feel so strongly about the collaboration to help people in East Tennessee. Whatever resources we have, if the clinic needs it, if the churches need it, we’re here,” she said.

“We want to unite our fellow Catholics and ask them to get out of the pews and come help, come volunteer. If it’s at the clinic, if it’s at any of the 11 programs at Catholic Charities, they can call me personally. We work together. If someone calls and asks how do I get to the clinic, I’m going directly to Martin to get them connected. It’s so important that the community know that the Church is united to help the community. This is what we’re called to do as Catholics,” she added.

They also stressed the importance of donors to both ministries. Donations are critical in serving those who need help and in making Catholic Charities and St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic the hands and heart of Jesus Christ.

“Donations are what makes the healing ministry of Jesus Christ possible in East Tennessee. We charge nothing for our services. It’s all volunteer-driven and donor-funded,” Mr. Vargas said.

Mrs. Healy echoed that statement.

“With both of us here in this community serving the wonderful people of Scott County and Helenwood, this is a first-class best service for those who want to participate. We serve 99.5 percent of the community who are not Catholic, and there is no charge for our services. People can come to one location and get the full range of health services here,” Mrs. Healy said.

Sister Mary Lisa understands that it will take time for the Legacy Clinic to get established in Scott County as it and the community get to know each other.

Catholic Charities and St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic are eagerly willing to be patient with their Scott County patients.

“It takes time to get to know the community and connect with other community organizations that really know the people here so that we can bring them what they truly need,” Sister Mary Lisa said. “It may take a little time for us to build our patient population here. But we’re willing to be patient because we know that there is a need, and we’re looking forward to getting to know this community.”

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