'Long-overdue' South LA health clinic set to open doors in January 2013

April 16, 2012, 1:46 p.m.

Fremont High School Wellness Center & Community Garden is set to open its doors in January 2013. Stakeholders broke ground for the project (above) on Monday morning. (Credit: José Martinez/OnCentral)

Hope was in the air at Fremont High School at the Monday morning groundbreaking of a brand-new community clinic set to open next year.

By the beginning of next year, planners are hoping Fremont High School Wellness Center & Community Garden will be open for business in what is now a vacant lot at the corner of Avalon Boulevard and 79th Street.

Rafael Balderas, Fremont's principal, called the project "long-overdue."

"This community needs it," he said at the groundbreaking ceremony. "We [will no longer need] to send our kids 10 miles away to get medical treatment – they can just walk here, get treatment, get back in the classroom, and do what they do best: learning."

The clinic and garden are a joint venture between the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust (NLT) and University Muslim Medical Association (UMMA) Community Clinic. The clinic will serve Fremont's students as well as the surrounding community, and the garden will provide fresh produce and open space for community members, both of which are sorely needed in South Los Angeles.

LAUSD secured funding for the building and construction, and UMMA and NLT will be the operators of the clinic, which is being touted as a "new model of school-based health."

"There hasn't been anything in the country like this clinic at this scale," said Yasser Aman, president and CEO of UMMA. He said Fremont is one of the most disparate campuses in LAUSD with respect to sexually-transmitted diseases and has one of the lowest achievement rates in terms of student scores, in addition to high dropout rates. He said the school was "set up to fail" and "just be another statistic."

"When one student testified that the safest space on campus at Fremont High School was the bathroom – that's where they choose to go because they have troubles at home and school and so forth – we just thought that was unacceptable," explained Aman. "So with this project being a health center, a garden and a place of respite, it means students can actually have a place other than the bathroom to take on the significant challenges that we all have."

Fremont, he added, is by no means an isolated case.

"Unfortunately, Fremont is indicative of a historic lack of investment in South L.A. institutions," said Aman. "But one of the beautiful things about this project is that it's a public-private partnership. It's bringing in multiple assets and resources that are already working in the community and actually galvanizing them."

The outlook on access to medical care in South Los Angeles is bleak – late last month, Nina Vaccaro, executive director of the Southside Coalition of Community Health Clinics (of which UMMA is a member) said it would be "devastating" if President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act were to be struck down by the Supreme Court.

In the meantime, though, community health clinics and their initiatives will help provide a safety net for society's most vulnerable, especially in South L.A.

Aman said the Fremont project was a fulfillment of Islamic tradition.

"When we see something wrong, we act with our hands first," he said. "And if we can't act with our hands, we speak about it with our tongues. And if we can't do that, we commit that it's wrong in our own hearts.

"We will act with our hands," he continued, motioning to the future clinic's site. "We will speak about the disparities in health in this local community, and we will hold those disparities in disdain in our own hearts."

That seems to be working for Mary Romero, who helped the project's managers research what needs of the community Fremont High School Wellness Center & Community Garden would have to fill.

"I've lived in South L.A. all my life," she said at the groundbreaking, "and I've seen the good, bad and ugly. Today I'm glad to see the good has come back down to hold the fort."

Aman said he hopes for staff to be moved into the new clinic by October, and that if all goes as planned, the ribbon-cutting ceremony will be next January.

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