When Katrina Clark first came to work at the then Fair Haven Clinic in 1974, it was a tiny storefront where grants were written serving patients who were treated in a few borrowed rooms in a local elementary school two evenings a week.
Four decades later Clark is leaving behind the Fair Haven Community Health Center (FHCHC)—an anchor for the community and a model that provides accessible care for thousands of patients a year regardless of the ability to pay.
Clark is retiring as executive director on June 21. A party in her honor takes place on Saturday in Branford, where her successor, Dr. Suzanne Lagarde, will be introduced. Click here for info on location and tickets.
With two years in the Peace Corps in Colombia and fluent Spanish under her belt, along with a master’s degree in public health from Yale, Clark was a young idealist from the JFK era ready to take on a big challenge back in the 1970s.
She found birds of a feather among the Yale students (many operating out of Dwight Hall), nurses, doctors, the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, and 1960s-vintage community anti-poverty activists.
“The dream always was to provide a comprehensive level of primary care” that was linguistically and culturally comfortable for a community that was and still is bus transfers away from hospitals, she said.
Clark doesn’t readily talk about herself or her accomplishments. She describes herself as only one of many dedicated players on a of a team who have shared her passion and commitment over the decades.
Others will tell you she has been the glue and grant-writer extraordinaire behind the scenes, as well as a chief visionary behind FHCHC’s growth.
In the beginning, the Fair Haven Clinic provided care only two evenings a week at the old Columbus School, with administrative offices (pictured) in a building that has the appearance of a clam shack.
Today, the center’s headquarters is in the rambling former Porto Funeral Home, a large Victorian house on Grand at Lloyd. It stays open five days week from morning until 5 p.m., with late hours twice a week.
Add to that five school-based health centers that FHCHC staffs at Clinton Avenue School; Fair Haven K-8; J.S. Martinez School; Riverside Academy; and Wilbur Cross.
There’s also the Fair Haven Medical Group, a geriatric clinic that FHCHC runs at Bella Vista elderly complex and a free clinic on Saturdays for the uninsured run by Yale nurses, docs, and other clinicians.
In all, the patients rage in age from birth to 104, said Clark.
In its inaugural, the clinic had a $5,000 budget of $5,000 and provided 500 visits. Today it has a $12 million annual budget, with 15,000 patients seeing clinicians at all sites for an annual 165,000 visits a year.
Back in the day, Clark’s clients were 50 percent Italian-American, 40 percent Latino (mainly Puerto Rican), and 10 percent African-American. Today the clinic serves a population that’s 75 percent Latino, 15 percent African-American, and 10 percent white.
Clark said her decision to retire has been germinating for about a year. She said the time is right to travel, relax, and be able to spend time with a first grandchild expected in September.
With the federal Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”), more and more people are going to be entering the primary care system. Clark called it an exciting time to pass the baton on to someone else.
Her successor, Lagarde, a physician, has been a leader at the FHCHC for years, especially in helping the uninsured and providing specialists’ care. A gastro-intestinal specialist, she is one of the founders of Project Access, which organizes donated specialty care. Clark said the network her successor has set up includes hundreds of physicians who each commit to seeing four to five uninsured patients a month.
Asked to forecast the future of the center, she said: “I don’t think it’ll be a sea change of growth, but making sure we’re meeting the needs and demands of the patients.”
That just might include a new building. She described the current manse as “a beautiful, wonderful building, but not as efficient as it might be.”
If there’s a new building, it’s likely not to be all that far from Grand and Lloyd. “We’re still very committed to Fair Haven,” she said.