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After 40 years, Children's Clinic looks toward a challenging future

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The North Country Children's Clinic celebrated its 40th anniversary last week in Watertown.

The clinic started as a volunteer organization with a few locations. It's now a major health care provider for uninsured and underinsured children in the region. It works from satellite locations, but now has a big home base on Arsenal Street in downtown Watertown.

Dozens of people gathered in the lobby there for the celebration.
But even as they shared cake and snacks, founders and friends worried about the clinic's future in a climate of governmental belt-tightening.

Janice Charles was a founder, and is a former executive director. She took reporter Joanna Richards all the way back to the beginning:

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Joanna Richards
Watertown Correspondent

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The Children's Clinic was founded to give uninsured and under-insured children access to health care. Janice Charles is one of the founders, and is a former executive director. At the 40th anniversary celebration, dozens of people were gathered in the lobby enjoying cake and snacks, so we went to a back room to talk.

Charles says the idea for the Children's Clinic came after Planned Parenthood of Northern New York conducted a survey in the early '70s:

"And they discovered that there were many preschool children appearing on the doorsteps of local schools who had had no health care, were unimmunized, had many physical and developmental problems that could have been treated years earlier, had those children had access to regular, ongoing primary care."

Forty years ago, Charles was a public nurse for Jefferson County. On Columbus Day in 1971, she helped put on the first of many community children's clinics at Watertown's North Side Improvement League. Eventually, monthly clinics were started up in other Jefferson County communities like Sackets Harbor, Philadelphia, Carthage, Clayton and South Jeff.

Since then, the Children's Clinic has expanded into parts of St. Lawrence, Lewis and Franklin counties. It still works from satellite locations in the region, but now has a big home base on Arsenal Street in downtown Watertown. The clinic has gone from treating children from zero to five years old to young adults up to age 21. It now offers the federal Women, Infants and Children program, or WIC. It runs school-based health centers. The clinic offers primary care as well as mental and dental health services all under one umbrella.

Its mission to treat the uninsured and underinsured continues to this day – the Children's Clinic now provides about half a million dollars in free or reduced cost medical care to uninsured children each year. But Director of Marketing Elaine Garvey says what makes the clinic such a special place is the variety of children it cares for:

"And so, in a waiting room, um, at the Children's Clinic, you have families sitting next to each other who are middle-class families, military families, families covered by Medicaid. They're all waiting to get the same excellent care, um, and we like that. You know, it's – it's who we are. It really suits our mission."

But that mission may be in jeopardy. New York state used to support the Children's Clinic with funding of several hundred thousand dollars each year, but a few years ago, that pool dried up. Since then, the clinic has had to lay off admininstrative staff.

Executive Director Aileen Martin says the Children's Clinic's 40th anniversary, though it comes amid tough times, has highlighted for her the organization's resilience over the years:

 "I had one person say, you know as I said, 'We have no money,' and this person who helped found us said, 'You've never had any money, get used to that. That's pretty much it.' And it helped me put things in perspective – to understand that my challenges are real, but our challenges are not insurmountable if we take them on as us. If we take them on as a team, they're not insurmountable. We can do this."

As Martin looks to the future of the Children's Clinic, she says there's one new direction that may help both the clinic's patients and its bottom line: treating adults. Many parents of the clinic's young patients lack primary care themselves, Martin says. And as children age out of the clinic, they face challenges finding adult primary care. So the clinic has known of a need for more adult primary care in the area for awhile.

That need fortunately coincides with what could be a new funding source for the clinic. New York state provides a pool of money for clinics that treat the entire needy population, from infants to the elderly. It's called the indigent care pool. If the Children's Clinic expands to treating adults, it could qualify to receive some of those funds. And that could help it continue to meet its mission of providing care regardless of patients' ability to pay.

For North Country Public Radio, I'm Joanna Richards in Watertown.


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