TUPELO, Miss. (AP) — For a quarter century, the Antone Tannehill Good Samaritan Free Clinic has remained true to its mission as it has grown.

"We evolved with community needs," said executive director Cindy Sparks. "But we continue to see the same group of people falling through the gaps in the health care system."

Betty Nell Rogers of Shannon has relied on the Good Samaritan Clinic for nearly 25 years.

"I couldn't have made it without them," said Rogers, who works in food service.

The staff of volunteer doctors and nurses have helped the 58-year-old manage her high blood pressure and kept her from tipping into full-blown diabetes.

"I like everything about the clinic," Rogers said. "The people are friendly."

The clinic, which opened its doors in November 1992, provides comprehensive medical and dental care and medications without charge to working Lee County residents who meet income guidelines. It has logged more than 67,000 patient visits, averaging about 2,000 a year.

"The people we serve at the free clinic are those who make our lives easier," Sparks said. "They serve us when we go out to eat. They take our clothes when we drop them off at the dry cleaner."

They don't qualify for Medicare and Medicaid, and they can't access health insurance because their employers don't offer it or it's beyond what their paychecks can cover, Sparks said. Many of the clinic's patients work multiple jobs.

"These are people who are working very hard for very little," Sparks said.

Doctors, nurses, pharmacists and dentists volunteer their time and expertise to take care of the clinic's patients.

"We couldn't make it without the support of physicians and dentists," Sparks said.

The Good Samaritan Clinic is usually full of smiles, said volunteer nurse Dot Reason.

"Everybody is happy here," Reason said. Patients are grateful for the care; the providers feel appreciated.

It's not just medical professionals who contribute to the clinic's success. Lay volunteers like Joanne Robertson run errands, file paperwork and answer phones.

"I just want to help people," Robertson said, who has volunteered for 16 of the 25 years the clinic has been open. "I don't have a medical degree so I do whatever I can."

Stretching dollars

The clinic's annual budget of $332,000 comes from the support of United Way of Greater Lee County, the Lee County Board of Supervisors, Health Care Foundation of North Mississippi, CREATE Foundation as well as individuals, churches, civic and professional organizations. Funds raised during an annual roast event covers about a third of the budget.

Medication costs are a huge chunk of the clinic's budget, and the staff and the volunteers work hard to make the most of a medication assistance program.

"We've handled up to $750,000 in prescriptions in a year," said retired pharmacist Jody Gibson, who oversees the clinic's pharmacy as a volunteer. "If we didn't have the patient assistance programs we would have to have a significantly higher budget."

Over 25 years, the clinic's impact has made a tremendous impact on the quality of life for the community, said Melinda Tidwell, United Way executive director.

"I think it has been a Godsend for this community," Tidwell said. "We get a lot of calls about medical care and doctors bills. It would be much worse if there was nowhere to send people."

In 1990, Tupelo internist Dr. Antone Tannehill brought the idea of a free clinic to the congregation at First Presbyterian Church. He had been inspired by a free clinic in Roanoke, Virginia, said Lewis Whitfield, who served as the clinic's first board chairman.

"I don't know how to get this going, but I do know we need this," Whitfield remembers Tannehill saying. "He was the light for us to follow." The clinic was renamed in Tannehill's honor after his death in 2006.

Retired gastroenterologist Dr. Barney Guyton was among the group of physicians and community leaders who flew up to Roanoke to see the clinic in action.

"My initial impression was that it was a tremendous idea," Guyton said. "We felt the community would support it."

On the return trip, Dr. Walter Bourland issued the call to action.

"That was really impressive, but we're from Tupelo and we'll do it even better," Guyton remembers the now retired gynecologist saying.

It was important to the organizers to reach those who were working but didn't have the resources to access care, Guyton said. They knew they needed to offer clinic hours in the evening so patients wouldn't have to miss work. They knew they needed an onsite pharmacy that could provide the medications prescribed by doctors without cost.

The United Way provided a $20,000 grant to get the clinic off the ground. CREATE Foundation, which owns the Daily Journal, provided a launching pad for the group as a special project. North Mississippi Medical Center was extremely helpful in moving the clinic from idea to reality. The late Anna Kirsey McLean donated $25,000 to help open the doors.

"Everybody in this community pulls together to meet needs when we see one," said Linda Bowlin, a member of the steering committee. "There were so many people who came together to work for the clinic."

When the clinic opened, it was the first of its kind in the state, said Allen Linton, who served as the first executive director. The goal was to provide dignified, compassionate care to families in the community who wouldn't otherwise have access to health care.

"Initially, I think everybody in the community wanted to be a part of it," Linton said.

In 1998, the clinic received a $100,000 grant from the E.R. Carpenter Foundation that made the purchase of its building possible.

"It was wonderful for us," Sparks said. "We were able to use the entire building," taking over the back quarter of the building that previously was used by dentist.

Initially, the organizers envisioned a clinic that cared for the acute needs of its patients. It quickly became apparent that there was a huge, unmet need for managing chronic conditions, Sparks said. People who didn't have the money to see the doctor for a case of the flu, also didn't have the funds to have check ups to manage their high blood pressure or diabetes or purchase the medications to manage those conditions.

"We didn't intend to become a medical home, but that's what we are," Sparks said, who joined the clinic in 1994.

The Good Samaritan Clinic took care of children until the Children's Health Insurance Program made comprehensive coverage - medical, dental and vision - available to the children of its patients. Previously the families had made too much for their children to qualify for Medicaid.

"It's never been about having the highest numbers of patients," Sparks said. "It's about what's best for the patients and their families."

Just as the Roanoke clinic gave Good Samaritan its start, the Tupelo clinic has offered a helping hand to other communities that wanted to create free clinics. Good Samaritan was part of an American Academy of Pediatrics grant that spawned CATCH Kids, which offers community and school-based clinics in Lee, Chickasaw and Pontotoc counties.

"We've helped several clinics in Mississippi, Alabama, North Carolina and South Carolina," Sparks said. "We even had a visit six months ago from a group from the coast."

As the clinic evolved, it was able to add more and more preventive screening for patients. In addition to mammograms, the clinic is able to offer access to colonoscopies, prostate cancer screening, pap smears and screening blood work.

"I never dreamed we would be able to offer as many preventive services as we can," in the early years, Sparks said.