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VOL. 127 | NO. 202 | Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Helping Hands

Church Health Center celebrates 25 years of care

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When racers and supporters gather this weekend for the food, games and competition that all will be part of the Church Health Center’s 5K/10K and 1-mile Family Fun Walk, they’ll be part of something more than a race and something more meaningful than fun and games.

Exercise specialist Willie Leonard leads a stretching and strengthening class at the Church Health Center.  The center, celebrating 25 years, will have a 5K/10K and 1-mile Family Fun Walk this weekend.

(Daily News File Photo/Lance Murphey)

The event will be a celebration of the very existence of the center, the largest nonprofit faith-based clinic of its kind in the nation.

The center was founded by Dr. Scott Morris, a soft-spoken, constantly smiling minister and physician from Atlanta. For the last 25 years, he and the center’s employees – now numbering about 220 – have been at the forefront of a kind of “it takes a village” approach to medicine, spirituality and health care in Memphis.

About the center’s mission that includes bringing the medical care to Memphis’ uninsured population that they can’t get anywhere else, Morris speaks often in poetic imagery, with a quiet, easy tone in his voice.

“Where we touch people is really at the heart of our existence as human beings,” is how he once put it to The Daily News.

Last month marked the center’s actual 25th anniversary. It was Sept. 1, 1987, when Morris opened the doors to what was then a new medical clinic that welcomed 12 people and today has an operating budget of $14 million and gets about 120,000 visits each year to its wellness center.

“The way I’ve figured it, I think there’s roughly 55,000 people in Memphis who depend on the Church Health Center,” Morris said. “When the Church Health Center started, I was 33 years old, and I was too young and too dumb to realize it had no chance of succeeding.

“I think what drives us and has driven for 25 years is that we’re doing something people care about. We take care of the people who work to make our lives comfortable. It’s the people that matter in our lives and who take care of your kids. They are the people who wash your dishes in a restaurant. They don’t complain about anything, and we all know how important they are in this community.”

The race celebrating the center’s anniversary will be held Oct. 20 at the Church Health Center Wellness facility, 1115 Union Ave. In addition to the race, the center will be open for tours, yoga and cooking demonstrations.

Meanwhile, the center also is starting a new chapter in its existence, one that Morris is particularly excited about. The center is one of nine groups that recently signed a collective letter of intent to occupy 600,000 square feet of the former Sears, Roebuck & Co. Retail and Catalog distribution facility in Midtown’s Crosstown neighborhood.

Other groups include ALSAC, Crosstown Arts, Gestalt Community Schools, Methodist Healthcare, Memphis Teacher Residency, Rhodes College, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and The West Clinic.

“Our moving to Sears Crosstown is about not only believing that individually we need each other, but as institutions we need each other,” Morris said. “The Church Health Center is going to be one of nine partners in a project that’s bigger than all of us and a project that I think is going to turn out to be one of the coolest things Memphis has ever done.”

Morris once told The Daily News he had a vision as a child of one day offering medical care to people without health coverage. He also remembers being about 10 years old and a preacher at his church “patting me on the head” and speculating that he’d grow up to be a preacher himself one day.

Morris, of course, took that in his own direction.

“The other thing we do here is focus on what does it mean to live the healthy life – for all of us,” Morris said, reflecting on the center’s mission in light of the anniversary. “That’s something that touches everybody very deeply. The fact is, none of us is totally smart enough to do this on our own. We need each other. The Church Health Center is all about creating community. And what better word is there for what drives Memphis.

“We may not be aesthetically the most beautiful city in the country, but when it comes down to a giving heart, I don’t know a city that’s more beautiful.”

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