St. Augustine Catholic
El Camino: A beacon of hope to the poor
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El Camino
A beacon of hope for the poor

Jeannie and Guy Gallina were making a “Journey to Justice” weekend retreat sponsored by the Diocese of Saint Augustine last year when they had a chance to share food and conversation with the growing Hispanic community of Green Cove Springs.

That encounter, with the mostly Mexican migrant workers of the area, sparked an idea by the Gallina’s that spread to much of the faithful at Sacred Heart Parish and the medical community of Orange Park. Their idea? A free health clinic that would meet the growing medical needs of uninsured men, women and children.

The Gallina’s found that the local migrant community, in part because of their poverty and lack of health insurance as well as a general fear over their immigration status, often make do without seeking proper medical care.

Last year, El Camino (The Way) Medical Clinic, opened its doors for service. The private not-for-profit clinic first operated out of space provided by the Clay County Health Department. In recent months, volunteers from the parish and the community donated time and materials to renovate space at an old elementary school located on Lemon Street in Green Cove Springs.

All doctors, nurses and clerical personnel donate their time and energy to this project, which operates one Saturday per month from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Clients must fall within federal poverty guidelines and have no health insurance to qualify for services.

“Because the bud of this idea came out of a justice and peace retreat, and because the real message is that we are responsible for each other, it is important that we be involved with the needy and not just give money,” said Jeannie, a stay-at-home mother.

Jeannie estimates that she and a core group of volunteers work about 100 hours a month providing recruitment; contracting and registration with the State of Florida Department of Health; serving as a liaison with Consolidated Laboratories, Inc. and Clay County Department of Health; making physical plant arrangements and managing workers.

Consolidated Labs provides specimen testing “pro-bono.” Pharmaceuticals and prescription medications are provided by Mayhugh’s Pharmacy and paid for with clinic dollars. The Orange Park Medical Center in Clay County and St. Vincent’s Hospital donate medical supplies and equipment, with follow-up care and additional testing provided by the We Care referral program of the county health department.

“We announced in our parish bulletin that we needed volunteers to come forward and about 30 people showed up, including doctors, dentists, nurses and physical therapists. Today we have about 60 people who volunteer on a regular basis,” said Jeannie. “We see a lot of patients with diabetes, high blood pressure and asthma conditions,” adding that in the near future “we hope to provide immunizations and basic gynecological services.”

Father Jhon Guarnizo, formerly assigned to Sacred Heart Parish in Green Cove Springs, was born in Columbia and speaks Spanish. Currently assigned to Assumption Parish in Jacksonville, Father Jhon maintains a good rapport and a mutual trust with the Hispanic community of the area. He joins volunteers once-a-month in the clinic providing pastoral care.

Sacred Heart Parish in Green Cove Springs, once a small mission community of about 200 people, has grown to about 1,300 families due to the population growth north of town. They attribute the increase to the growing number of Hispanics moving to the area.

“We have always prided ourselves on being an open, friendly and welcoming parish and that is seen in our outreach programs to the needy,” said Father Donal Sullivan, pastor of Sacred Heart. This community has always rallied to help the less privileged and El Camino is yet another example of that. It makes me proud that our parishioners demonstrate good Catholic principals through the virtues of charity by reaching out to people as Christ taught us,” said Father Donal.

The El Caminio network of volunteer physicians includes general practitioners (many U.S. Navy doctors), pediatricians, a gynecologist, a midwife and a cardiologist. In addition, a group of volunteer dentists are in the process of putting together a free dental clinic in the area, according to Jeannie.

The underlying strategy at El Camino is to connect needy families to community programs and services already in existence; to get them “into the system” so they have the security of knowing they will be safe and get the services they need. The clinics goals resonate with the theme of the U.S. Bishops’ National Migration Week - “Welcoming Christ in the Migrant,” observed Jan. 2-8 nationwide.

In order to become a volunteer physician, doctors must complete a contract application for the State of Florida through the health department. This frees doctors from litigation concerns. It takes a leap of faith on the part of physicians to provide services and yet they do it and come back time and again, according to organizers.

“It speaks to the fact that the physicians in the community recognize the need (for treating the uninsured) out there,” said Kelly Komatz, El Camino’s lead physician and a member of Sacred Heart Parish. Dr. Komatz is a pediatrician working for Community Hospice in Jacksonville. “It is a service to those who are less fortunate and a safe haven promoted by word of mouth. There is a lot of self gratification in giving back to the community by helping families that wouldn’t otherwise be able to access services.”