A Short History of Open Cities Health Center

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Open Cities Health Center, Inc., is a primary medical, dental and mental health clinic located in the heart of St. Paul, Minnesota at 409 N. Dunlap Street and at 135 Manitoba Avenue. OCHC opened the year before Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated at a time when activism in the country was running high, including in the African American community. There was a tremendous amount of community involvement in civil rights, equal opportunity and creating an environment where everyone had equal access to everything from education to health care to jobs.

It was 1967 and a group of St. Paul residents opened one of the state's first medical clinics dedicated to helping populations of color. The clinic started in the basement of St. James Church, in St. Paul's old Rondo neighborhood, an area where the majority of residents were African American. The small clinic was operated by volunteers and services included immunizations and health education. Its mission was to provide health care to economically disadvantaged residents. Funding was originally provided by Ramsey Action Programs and the City of St. Paul.

Not only was the concept of the clinic unique, but its original founders were also pioneers in the field. With the women's movement still a few years away, the health center's first leaders were not only African American, they were women. Mary Stokes was named the clinic's first coordinator in 1969. A public health nurse, she relocated to St. Paul from Harlem in 1947 and worked for the St. Paul Bureau of Public Health.

Mrs. Timothy O. Vann became the project director at the clinic in 1971. Vann supported her 10 children by herself when she was widowed in her early 30s. A graduate of Langston University and the University of Minnesota, she was employed by the St. Paul Public Works Department and for many years she worked for the Housing and Redevelopment Authority.

Under Vann's leadership, the small community clinic expanded services to offer outpatient medical care and added many programs and services including social services, a pharmacy, dental facility and eye clinic.

The health clinic continued to attract a growing client base and needed to expand. The City of St. Paul had received funding under the Model Cities Program, a federal plan that provided financial assistance to distressed neighborhoods, in 1969. Summit-University in St. Paul was one of those areas. The clinic received part of the Model Cities funding and was first named 'Model Cities Health Project' and then for many years it was Model Cities Health Center. (Model Cities Health Center changed its name to Open Cities Health Center in 2003 to reflect the growing patient population that was both diverse and coming from all parts of the 7-county metropolitan area of the Twin Cities.)

OCHC expanded in 1972 to offer outpatient medical care including exams, minor emergency care, maternal and infant care, a well-baby clinic, podiatry, ophthalmology and hearing screens and moved to larger facilities at the Hallie Q. Brown - Martin Luther King Center.

Toward the end of the 70s, OCHC was established as a community health clinic and funding was granted under the Federal Urban Health Initiatives. OCHC was established as a 501c (3) nonprofit organization in 1981.

Mrs. Vann retired in 1983 and Dr. Beverley Oliver Hawkins replaced her as OCHC's new executive director. Under Hawkins leadership the clinic took a giant step forward when, in 1986, it moved into a newly constructed facility at the northeast corner of Fuller Avenue and Dale Street.

The clinic has a large multicultural, ethnically diverse client base and has continued to add services and specialists to respond to client needs including opening a prompt care clinic and adding a podiatrist and ophthalmologist. As OCHC has grown and has expanded service to other locations in neighboring areas it continues to provide a cost-effective way to meet the health needs of the community. OCHC currently provides care on a bilingual, multicultural basis and has staff members from varied cultural backgrounds.

Open Cities Health Center went through several major transitions in the last few years when:
  • OCHC expanded its capacity by moving to a new location at 409 N. Dunlap Street in St. Paul's Midway district. OCHC had previously leased a 10,000 square foot facility at 430 N. Dale Street however; as demand for its services grew, the space became too small and OCHC bought the building next to Central Medical Building, doubling its space to over 26,000 sq. ft. OCHC was able increase efficiency by adding exam rooms and decreasing the patient wait time.
  • OCHC merged with the North End Health Center (located at 135 Manitoba on the corner of Rice Street and Manitoba) and thus greatly increased its service area. OCHC entered into an agreement to purchase substantially all of the assets of North End Health Center in September 2001. North End Health Center was founded in 1973 when church and community leaders recognized that the North End was lacking in basic health services for poor people. A community needs study revealed the growing incidence of venereal disease, increasing numbers of teen pregnancy and high levels of drug and alcohol abuse.
  • OCHC changed its name to Open Cities Health Center to reflect the two long-time community clinics: Model Cities Health Center and North End Health Center. The new name creates a universal image and makes both clinics more recognizable to the communities they serve.
Due to the expansion and OCHC's two sites in St. Paul that are located on main bus routes and near major freeways the service area now covers four counties (Ramsey, Hennepin, Washington and Dakota) with the majority of patients coming from St. Paul, Minneapolis and St. Paul's northern suburbs.

Today Open Cities Health Center offers comprehensive health care to all individuals and families. Medical services include pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology, family planning, adult care, geriatrics and internal medicine with specialists in dermatology, ophthalmology and podiatry. The family dentistry services include exams, x-rays, cleaning, dentures, partials and crowns, dental education and emergency walk-ins. The mental health department offers psychological and psychiatric evaluations, medicine management, case management, outreach, psychotherapy groups and support groups. Free HIV testing is also available. OCHC is open to everyone, including individuals and families without insurance. A sliding fee scale is also available.

OCHC also offers outreach and education through its Community Health Connection (CHC) program to address major health care issues particularly cancer, depression, diabetes, heart disease and infant mortality. The clinic recognizes that healthy residents make healthy communities and therefore there is a need to guarantee that residents have quality health care and preventive health care. The CHC program uses social workers, nurses, health educators and other staff to provide outreach and education that empower people to take charge of their health. The program concentrates on OCHC's target populations (African Americans, Southeast Asians and recent immigrants and refugees) due to the health disparities in these populations.

Open Cities Health Center is one of the largest nonprofit community health centers in the Twin Cities. Over 17,000 clients were seen at the clinic in 2004, which translates into over 56,000 visits. OCHC provides translators and offers many programs in both English and Hmong with a growing number in Somali.

While OCHC continues to grow and provide much needed services, it remains true to the stewardship of Mary Stokes and Mrs. Vann, dedicated community activists and humanitarians, and to its roots as the clinic that started in the basement of a church with volunteer help - offering health care to all those in need.