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Ebenezer Medical Outreach celebrating fifth anniversary in Douglass Centre

Jan. 17, 2008 @ 12:03 AM

HUNTINGTON -- It was January of last year when Nancy Smith first heard about Ebenezer Medical Outreach. At a time in her life when health care was getting more expensive, the 58-year-old Ironton woman had no income or health insurance.

"I didn't know what I was going to do about medical expenses. I filed for Social Security, and that takes forever," Smith said. "A friend told me there's a place in Huntington called Ebenezer. I filled out the form and got in, by the grace of God."

Since then, she's had mammograms, cervical screenings, X-rays and moles removed -- with all the fees waived, by Ebenezer or other programs through which Ebenezer administers assistance. Smith also has had throat pain since October and is having a biopsy taken this month.

"I would not be able to afford the medication I was supposed to be taking every day if it had not been for them," she said of Ebenezer. "There's some for blood pressure and antidepressants and for my arthritis. You do pay something, but it's only $3 for each item, and it never goes over $12."

Ebenezer Medical Outreach has grown tremendously since it got started in the early 1990s, and one of the biggest contributing factors has been its relocation to the Douglass Centre, at 1448 10th Ave., in 2003.

This month, Ebenezer celebrates its fifth anniversary in the Douglass Centre, which was formerly Douglass High School. It's one example of a true success story that has come from transforming an old school building.

The Cabell County school system has vacated many school buildings over the years as populations have thinned in one area and grown in others. Consolidations have left many beloved school buildings vacant, but through ingenuity of community members and a need in the neighborhood, some have been transformed into worthy projects such as Ebenezer, a medical center that gives free health care to families within 133 percent of the federal poverty level (for example, a family of four can earn no more than $27,000 a year).

A few other examples are the old Huntington High School, which now has senior apartments, along with senior YMCA services and performing arts space for Arts Resources of the Tri-State. Others have become a church fellowship hall, child-care center, fire academy or church camp.

With schools under construction right now, there are questions about what will become of another handful of these facilities. Miller Elementary and West Middle School will be vacant after their students combine with those from Cammack schools and relocate to the Cammack site. What will become of those buildings is still up in the air, school officials say.

Milton Middle School will be vacated in 2009 when students move into a new, larger facility.

"What we're thinking about doing with the front part -- the newest rooms that have never been under water -- we'd like to turn that into a preschool," said Mike O'Dell, assistant superintendent of operations for Cabell County Schools. "We could keep the gym and auxiliary gym for a new middle school. That's a suggestion -- the board hasn't voted on it."

Martha Elementary and Barboursville Middle will be torn down to make room for parking and such. And Enslow and Beverly Hills will eventually be consolidated in years to come. The Housing Authority has approached the school system about putting apartments into Enslow someday, similar to those in the old Simms School, said Jedd Flowers, spokesman for Cabell County Schools.

O'Dell said board members have expressed concerns about making sure these buildings are put to good use, and that the ownership is transferred as quickly as possible after they're vacant.

"There's something about an old, empty building that attracts vandals," he said.

Pea Ridge Elementary, which was sold by the school system in 2002 but stood vacant for five years, is an example. The school was torn apart by copper thieves and vandals. The facility and its 2.85 acres were auctioned for about $86,000 last year.

When Cammack was vacated, Cabell County Schools removed $6,000 in copper, recycled it and used the money for the school system, O'Dell said.

Anyone with ideas about how to re-use the schools that will soon be vacant can bring them to a public school board meeting, he suggested.

"Once we vacate them, we don't want to keep them. They're very expensive to keep," O'Dell said. "We don't want them to become eyesores for the community, especially when they can be put to good use like Ebenezer Outreach. It was built with taxpayers' money, so that's a good thing."

Yvonne Jones, executive director of Ebenezer Medical Outreach, said she's seen former students from Douglass come back to Huntington after some years away.

"They stand across the street and look up and say, 'Oh, this used to be so-and-so's room,' " Jones said. "They're so happy that the building has been kept alive because it was so important in the community for so many years."

Ebenezer sees about 1,500 patients a year, offering medical, dental and counseling services. It operates with 14 paid staff and about 40 volunteer doctors, nurses and nurse practitioners.

"The doctors donate their time," Smith said. "These are medical doctors who work in hospitals or have their own practice and donate their personal time, and they do this for people who cannot afford these services any other way."

A state grant covers about a third of the medical center's budget, while the rest comes from other grants, fundraisers and general donations, Jones said. It's one of nine free clinics in the state.

Moving to the Douglass Centre facility, which houses a few other organizations as well, was something that the folks at Ebenezer never dared to dream about, said Laura Darby, a volunteer nurse practitioner who has been with Ebenezer since the 1990s. The first location at 1660 8th Ave. had nothing but curtains dividing the rooms, and patients had very little privacy when giving their health history.

The second facility at 1650 8th Ave. had doors, but no windows and little space. Now, Ebenezer has a portion of three floors. It has eight exam rooms and space for the dental services.

"To see the good use of this building, that's exciting," Darby said. "The comfort to the patients is the big thing."

Smith can vouch for that. It's a place where everyone feels comfortable and is treated with respect.

"They don't care who you are, or where you came from," she said. "They're there for people. They have compassion. Somebody who walks into the office and is dressed to kill -- though that doesn't happen much -- is treated no differently than someone with torn coats and holes in their shoes. I can't sing their praises enough. It's such a good program."