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Beaver Dam’s Church Health Services begins 25th year

January 25, 2019

Few businesses show their success with a zero-balance at the end of a year, but that is exactly what Church Health Services in Beaver Dam has been doing for 24 years.

In this their 25th anniversary year, that much has remained a constant, and their mission continues — to provide health care, dental care and mental health services to those in need.

“As an organization we don’t have to make money,” said Executive Director Thea O’Connor. “As long as we hit zero at the end of the year we’re OK.”

O’Connor is the only full-time person on staff, with an additional four-and-a-quarter equivalent positions filled by part-time staffers. Physicians and counselors are often paid, but only a fraction of their professional fees.

“We’re a non-profit, so we can’t afford to pay the market rate for our professionals. We do what we can with the resources we have available to us,” said O’Connor.

Bev Beal-Loeck, who has been there part-time for the past 15 years, is happy to be part of the organization, which is largely staffed by volunteers.

“There’s a lot of stuff getting done, and there’s so much more to do. We have big hopes for the future,” said Beal-Loeck. “We all have a real passion for what we do.”

That passion is a tradition instilled by the organization’s founder.

Dr. Mike Augustson and his pastor at Trinity Church – United Methodist, the Rev. Steve Polster, originally established a medical clinic in two Sunday school classrooms.

“Once or twice a month Dr. Mike would hold a clinic for adults only,” said O’Connor, who has been with the non-profit for just under seven years. “He noticed in his private practice that the things going on in his patients’ lives had a huge impact on their physical health. That’s when he decided that we need to deal with the whole person .... He came up with this clinic which was a great model of care – especially for those with low income because they’re the least connected. He spoke to his pastor and the church backed him.”

Clinic patients had about an hour with the doctor and were able to talk to him about the challenges of their lives. Clergy was also present to offer spiritual counseling — although that counseling was optional.

“That’s what made the clinic unique – looking at more than just the physical issues a person might have,” O’Connor said.

Exam tables were stored in corners of the classrooms. Equipment was stored in drawers and brought out during the clinics. The tables were hidden under curtains when not in use. Medical records and desks were stored in a conference room with desk drawers locked for the sake of patient privacy.

“We operated like that for 19 years,” said O’Connor. “We had a lot of patients because there are a lot of low income people in Dodge County. At one point we had to decide whether we were going to scale back to remain in our tiny space or to take a leap of faith and find a new home.”

In July 2012, Church Health bought the former St. Patrick’s Church Rectory and by December it was remodeled and opened as the new Church Health Services facility.

The clinic helped approximately 500 patients in 2013.

After the Affordable Care Act was made law, medical patients dropped dramatically.

At the end of 2017 the clinic had about 35 regular patients. While most previous patients were receiving the care they needed, there were still others who were falling between the cracks. Drop-in clinics were implemented to meet those needs, along with an increased focus on meeting dental and mental health needs.

There are currently two to three medical clinics a month, with four to six patients at each clinic. Volunteers either help those patients directly with on-call volunteer physicians, or refer them to the place where they will find the help they need.

Dental health needs, on the other hand, have skyrocketed. Two former health exam rooms were added to the dental clinic space, allowing for four dental stations (three for procedures and one for hygiene) equipped with donated equipment.

“At the end of 2018, we were at a little over 1,800 dental patients,” said O’Connor. “Five hundred and seven were children. In 2018, we opened our dental and mental health clinics to kids.”

Mental health services have grown dramatically since mental health services have been offered in schools, including Beaver Dam for the past two years and last year in Waupun, with a soon-to-come trail in Horicon. In Beaver Dam, licensed professional counselors spend a designated amount of time in every school – intervening in challenging situations or just being present for children facing challenging situations or other obstacles to learning.

A total of about 57 kids are currently being seen weekly in the Beaver Dam School District, including a behavioral therapy group teaching emotional and coping skills to teens.

In Waupun, sessions are also offered for those at risk for alcohol and other drug abuse, in advance or instead of possible expulsion for violating school policies.

Such a program is being considered for Beaver Dam as well.

A total of 100 kids are being seen weekly in the Waupun Area School District.

A pilot program is being proposed for junior and senior high school in the Horicon School District.

CHS pursues Medicaid reimbursement whenever possible, but the largest part of the budget is provided by private donors and government grants. Given that ongoing challenge to find money, O’Connor strives to spend those funds wisely. The group’s annual budget stands at around $600,000.

Nothing in health care stays the same, according to O’Connor, and adaptability has been key to the organization’s long-standing success.

“I think we’re getting better and better as we move forward,” said O’Connor. “We always roll up our sleeves and face whatever comes our way. The only thing constant here is change.”

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