Health Agency Expands

By Michelle Sutherlin, Staff Writer
Photo by Jaconna Aguirre
The Oklahoman - 08/29/2001

Former Health For Friends Director Carrie Mitchell and board member Brad Taylor examine plans for the organization's expansion.

One of Norman's most crowded nonprofit agencies is getting little bigger.

Health for Friends, a nonprofit that provides health care services to low-income, uninsured residents of Norman, broke ground on its property Monday to add space to treat patients.

The current building, at 317 E Himes, will get an addition this fall and spring that will add more pharmacy space, pharmacy waiting area space, enlarged exam rooms and more parking, said Maurine Garton, executive director of Health for Friends.

"We are bursting at the seems," Garton said. "We are adding space to have room to grow into the future."

The project is being done by the University of Oklahoma College of Architecture, Design/Build class. Last semester the class did the design will be in the building phase this fall and next spring. Garton said the project should be complete next spring, barring any unforeseen circumstances.

The present building is 76 feet long and 38 feet wide. The addition will extend the building to 126 feet in length with the same width, Garton said.

The goal is to keep the agency open while construction takes place, but Garton said that could be a challenge.

"Realistically, we probably will close," Garton said. "We will coordinate with the university, so if we have to close, it will close for a minimum time. Our goal is to remain open because our people don't have another place to go."

Coordinating with OU has been a great experience, Garton said.

"The program is designed to give architectural students real-world experience and is designed to teach them social awareness," she said.

Garton said the agency provides general medical, prenatal, dental and pharmacy care to the medically underserved in the community and is a safety net for those who cannot afford care.

Health for Friends had more than 10,000 patient encounters in the year 2000. Since the beginning, Health for Friends has continued to grow at a rate of 20 percent per year, Garton said.

Health for Friends is a United Way organization. Health for Friends also receives funding from Norman Regional Hospital and through other grants and donations. Sarkeys Foundation provided a $75,000 for the project. Garton said Norman Regional Hospital Foundations and other supporters throughout the community have also helped fund this project.

Health For Friends began in 1985 in an abandoned garage. After several moves, it occupied the present location at 317 East Himes in 1992. Besides the clinics and pharmacy, the building houses the office staff, volunteers and medical records. The agency has experienced steady growth as Norman's population has increased, along with the number of poor who need medical care.

To qualify for care, clients must be at 125 percent of the national poverty guidelines and must be uninsured. The agency requests a donation of $5 for a physician visit that may include laboratory and/or radiology services and a $1 donation for each prescription, but no one is turned away for lack of money, Garton said.

"If it were not for us, the community would be getting a lot sicker and spending more time in the hospital," Garton said. "We are keeping the community healthier."