Governor Brown, Legislators Turn Out for Virginia Garcia Celebration

Founders remember humble beginnings, model integrated care

Forty years ago, Gonzala Lira and her friends began raising money for what became the Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center and Foundation selling enchiladas and tacos in churches every weekend. “We were well known. There were not a lot of Mexican restaurants back then.”

A 40th birthday party at the Cornelius Wellness Center, one of 16 Virginia Garcia sites serving 40,000 patients, felt like a family homecoming. Gov. Kate Brown—herself a board member for a related organization “until February when I had a job change” -- thanked Lira and other founders. “When Virginia Garcia died of a treatable illness at age six, this community rallied together. These weren’t politicians or even businesspeople. They were community members and activists.”

“I came as a worker bee, I’m still a worker bee,” said Maria Loredo, chief operations officer who started at the clinic 38 years ago when it was 600 square feet in a converted garage.

Jim Zaleski started as a VISTA volunteer who later became executive director from 1983-1991, when “the budget was just breaking $1 million. Today it’s $52 million.” He remembers the “battle to get the community to respect us.”

Rep. Mitch Greenlick told of being arrested with other VISTA volunteers at a migrant camp and marveled at the change 40 years brought “far beyond anybody’s imagination.”

Organizers said 25 people were invited to the birthday party but more than 100 packed a room normally used for Zumba classes -- including dozens of elected officials and Oregon healthcare industry bigwigs.

Greg Van Pelt was a 23-year-old beginning management trainee in the Providence system when he was assigned to Virginia Garcia as “a day worker back then. I solicited from the medical community anything we could find.”

His scrounging for an OBGYN table resulted in a dental chair. “I would argue that was the beginning of our dental program.”

Today, Virginia Garcia provides primary care and dental services at clinics, school-based health centers and a mobile unit throughout Washington and Yamhill counties. Its emphasis remains on migrant and seasonal farmworkers, along with others facing barriers to healthcare.

“We were practicing culturally and linguistically appropriate care,” said Dr. Greg Mecklem, Virginia Garcia’s mostly volunteer medical director for 21 years, decades before it became a universal healthcare goal.

Colin Evans, the foundation’s board chair, says Virginia Garcia has been implementing the Triple Aim for four decades and proves “it works. It’s the model for the nation. Finally, Obamacare caught up with Virginia Garcia.”

Jan can be reached at [email protected].

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