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Volunteers in Medicine opens new care center in Pittsfield

“The atmosphere in the clinic radiates hope and compassion,” said founding physician Jeff Blake. “And because we’re not limited by insurance regulations and stipulations, we’re able to deliver the most straightforward, meaningful care.”

“At a time when communities are struggling to find solutions to the most seemingly intractable problems—like healthcare access for the most vulnerable—VIM’s 20-year record of accomplishment of delivering high-quality healthcare and wrap-around social services will keep our Pittsfield neighbors healthy and our community safer, more engaged, and productive.” — Mayor Peter Marchetti

Pittsfield — Twenty years ago, a small group of retired doctors and professionals dared to ask the question: If it’s difficult for us to access healthcare, how hard must it be for those without insurance or adequate income? They created Volunteers in Medicine (VIM) Berkshires at 777 Main Street in Great Barrington to bridge that gap.

Today, according to its website, VIM is “a thriving nonprofit committed to creating a society where everyone has an equal opportunity for a healthy life.” It has grown to 21 staff members, 70 clinical volunteers and 100 additional volunteers, and nearly 2,000 patients from throughout Berkshire County. Last year alone, it added 700 new patients and conducted 7,880 patient visits. With an average annual cost of $1,000 per patient, its annual budget has also grown, from $200,000 to $2.2 million.

As VIM has grown, the number of patients needing care in Pittsfield and the surrounding region has also grown; in fact, more than half of VIM patients (871 at last count) now live in central Berkshire County. To increase access and reduce the financial and logistical travel barriers for these patients, VIM launched a $10 million Care Works campaign last July. In less than a year, it raised half that amount ($5 million, mainly through private donations) and reached its first major goal: establishing a second care center.

The familiar, welcoming logo in the waiting area of the new Pittsfield care center. Photo by Kenzie Fields.

VIM celebrated the official opening of its second care center, at 199 South Street (Unit A) in Pittsfield, on Thursday, May 2. Visitors exploring the state-of-the-art facility hummed with excitement, noting how the tranquil sea colors, hand-blown glass lights, and bilingual signage waved the welcome flag throughout.

This is just the beginning. Part two of the Care Works campaign will involve a strategic renovation of the Great Barrington care center—including more space for the Community Health Workers (CHWs) program and new initiatives like VIM’s developing medical-legal partnership program. And part three will focus on building the funding necessary to sustain their work, ensuring high quality services and the ability to respond to the growing needs of patients in the Berkshire community for years to come.

Members of the VIM team with founding board member Matt Mandel (blue hat) at the celebration. Photo by Robbi Hartt.

A special evening celebrating humanity

As with all VIM milestones, the opening was a gathering of dedicated caregivers and supporters focused on the community they serve. Executive Director Ilana Steinhauer, who has a gift for sharing powerful stories, highlighted a recent patient, Jose, who came to VIM seeking care for himself but also received help reuniting his family and setting up medical services for his two children. A year later, Jose’s health was restored and his son took part in his school play. His story, as she pointed out, is one of many about “immigrants with no healthcare and nowhere to turn learning about Volunteers in Medicine in a moment of crisis and finding a place of trust and security.” While each story features different names, countries of origin, and crises, the themes are as consistent as VIM’s legacy of care.

“This is a community effort, and we are incredibly grateful for the support of our donors and the collaborations with local organizations that have made this center a reality,” said Steinhauer, who has worked consistently as executive director to build bridges to other agencies. Ninety-eight percent of VIM’s patients are immigrants who live and work in our community, supporting small businesses, homes, restaurants, and farms. “They are our neighbors,” she affirmed, adding, “Through VIM, we discover what a beautiful, diverse, sustainable community can be.”

VIM staff and community partners at the celebration (from left to right: Diana Lotero, VIM; Melissa Canavan, Berkshire Immigrant Center; Gladis Rave, VIM; and Diane Wortis, Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center). Photo by Kenzie Fields.

That community includes state and local officials who partner together to provide support, thanks to Steinhauer and others’ efforts. They include Pittsfield Mayor Peter Marchetti, who committed $200,000 in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds through the City of Pittsfield; U.S. Senators Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren, who secured $441,000 in federal funds; and State Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier and other delegates who helped secure $75,000 in state funds.

Board member Robin McGraw acknowledged founding board members Matt Mandel and Art Peisner for their role in helping to launch VIM two decades ago and their dedicated involvement ever since. He gave a special thank you to Dan McManmon, president of the College Internship Program (CIP), whose company (Jedko Properties LLC) owns the building that houses the new center. “The McManmon family has allowed us to occupy this truly amazing space and alter the space to meet our clinical needs and has been extremely accommodating through every stage of the process,” he affirmed.

The McManmon family, whose generosity was key in securing and renovating the new center. Photo by Kenzie Fields.

Finally, he expressed gratitude for the overwhelming private and public support (including million dollar gifts by several anonymous donors), adding “we need each and every one of you to help us continue to grow.” Other funders whose generosity made the expansion possible include Berkshire Health Systems, the Feigenbaum Foundation, and Greylock Federal Union, who continue to fuel VIM’s work and expansive services.

Addressing root causes and healing the whole person

VIM is committed not only to treating symptoms but to healing the whole person. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has calculated that 80 percent of a person’s health is shaped by social determinants. As the connection between mind, body, health, and social determinants becomes increasingly clearer, VIM’s approach becomes more important as a model of care that is truly changing the health and long-term success of our Berkshire community.

“Our goal is for patients to live healthy, connected, joyful lives in a community that values and holds them,” Steinhauer explains. “To do that, we need to acknowledge and address all of the pieces—including linking families to social services; keeping employees healthy and able to work; and providing transportation, behavioral services, and assistance with child care and rent.” On top of all that, thanks to BASIC (Berkshire Alliance to Support the Immigrant Community, founded by Steinhauer, Neil Hirsch, and John Nelson), they have biweekly meetings with local agencies to identify service gaps and assign agencies to take the lead in filling them. Their coordinated efforts ensure the most efficient and effective means of addressing the needs of our growing immigrant community.

A powerful coalition (from left): Andi Cambi (Pittsfield Health Department), Amber Besaw (Northern Berkshire Community Coalition), Laura Kitross (Berkshire Regional Planning Commission), Darlene Rodowicz (Berkshire Health Systems), and Ilana Steinhauer (VIM). Photo by Kenzie Fields.

“Our culturally attuned care model seeks to address the root causes of health disparities, invest in the community we serve, and rethink the larger systems that leave people behind,” Nelson Fernandez, director of development and communications, states. Being culturally attuned means having staff and volunteers who speak the patients’ native languages and understand the cultural values that influence their decisions. “More than 80 percent of our staff are immigrants themselves, and 90 percent are bilingual,” he explains.

Ensuring access for everyone while saving money system wide

This expansion marks a significant milestone in VIM’s mission to ensure that everyone, regardless of their ability to pay, has access to quality healthcare. “Almost four percent of Berkshire County adults ages 18 to 64 are uninsured,” notes Steinhauer. They include people between jobs, asylum seekers, veterans, essential workers, and people who work part time or can’t afford co-pays and deductibles.

And they are predominantly immigrants—many from Latinx, West African, and Asian families, whose current finances or status prevents them from being eligible for private or government health insurance. “Our new center will make our services more accessible and narrow the healthcare-coverage gap,” Steinhauer stated.

“The atmosphere in the clinic radiates hope and compassion,” founding physician Jeff Blake added. “And because we’re not limited by insurance regulations and stipulations, we’re able to deliver the most straightforward, meaningful care.”

Their innovative approach has already greatly reduced emergency-room visits and hospitalizations compared to expected rates for their population, resulting in $1.4 million annual savings in healthcare costs (based on a yearly emergency-room cost avoidance of $589,974 and yearly hospital cost avoidance of $801,450).

“Our lives are connected by a thousand invisible threads,” Steinhauer concluded, eyes wide with excitement for all the possibilities that realization holds. As she raised her glass, she toasted “to love, community, but really to health. Salud!” During the reception that followed, founders Catherine and Matt Mandel admitted, “VIM was an all-day job for years. It took some time to reach people and show them that we need immigrants, but look where we are now. It couldn’t be better.” Emma Lezberg of the Berkshire Immigrant Center confirms, “Immigrants are the source of new job creation and new employees that are needed, especially now.”

A recent patient in the new care center. Photo courtesy of VIM Berkshires.

Building sustainable healthcare for our changing Berkshire ecosystem

Hikers and nature lovers know the importance of respecting our fragile and ever-changing Berkshire ecosystems—from freshwater lakes to forests to open meadows. They also know that each element of an ecosystem plays an integral role. Our Berkshire communities are no different. Our businesses, cultural institutions, and hospitality venues cannot survive without a reliable workforce—and more and more, that workforce is rooted in the growing immigrant community, which requires housing, fair wages, a sense of community, and, most important of all, access to healthcare to live. The number of immigrants in Berkshire County is estimated to be roughly 10,000 today and growing—and the percentage of businesses that wouldn’t exist without them is growing, too. To protect that ecosystem, we need to invest in long-term solutions to existing challenges.

For years, finding and affording healthcare was an issue for nearly everyone living in the Berkshires, regardless of income status. It remains a major concern for four percent of the Berkshire community today. But 95 percent of that four percent are getting the care they need, thanks to VIM. To ensure that it can continue to respond to the needs of the community long term, VIM is working tirelessly to raise the remaining $5 million for its Care Works campaign. For more information on how you can become a donor or volunteer, visit VIM’s website.

Robin Wall Kimmerer’s introduction to Orion magazine’s recent publication “Old Growth,” focuses on trees and their ecosystems, calling us to pay attention, to see and feel equally the beauty and the wounds of our ever-changing ecosystems. She writes, “Paying attention to suffering sharpens our ability to respond, to be responsible …” and ends with, “Attention becomes intention, which coalesces itself to action.”

This is what VIM is passionately doing—paying attention to the healthcare needs of our changing community and taking action—and what it asks us as members of the same community to do.

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