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Virginia Garcia celebrates 40th year with a party

Health care organization honors original founders; governor attends


Virginia Garcias executive director, Gil Muñoz, addresses the founders.Gov. Kate Brown was one of many dignitaries in attendance Aug. 13 in Cornelius during a reception to honor the founders of the Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center.

The health care organization is celebrating 40 years.

Founded in 1975, the organization is named after 6-year-old Virginia Garcia, whose parents were migrant farm workers. Virginia died after a cut on her foot went untreated due to economic and communication barriers.

After her death, a handful of founders, determined to prevent a similar tragedy, went to work to create a health care clinic where low-income migrant farm workers could get health care.

A short time later, and with the commitment of one year of support from the Sisters of Providence (now connected to Providence St. Vincent Medical Center), a tiny clinic opened in what was a three-car garage in Cornelius.

The founders’ efforts, and the efforts that have continued the growth of Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center over the years, “exemplifies the power of connections,” Brown told the founders.

“They didn’t have to do it,” said Gil Muñoz, Virginia Garcia’s executive director.HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTOS: JOHN SCHRAG - Alex Flores, board chairman at Centro Cultural, shows Gov. Kate Brown a cell phone photo during the Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center Founders Day celebration Aug. 13.

“Virginia’s death could have ended with just one family’s broken heart, but instead, this thoughtful, committed group went out of their way to open the first clinic. We thank them for their generous spirit.”

Greg Mecklem, who volunteered as a doctor in the clinic, recalled the clinic had walls that didn’t reach the ceiling. “We had to collect health history in a whisper” to maintain patient confidentiality, he recalled.

Greg Van Pelt recalled that first year of the clinic. He was sent by St. Vincent as the “day worker,” he said.

It was his job, he explained, to “go out and solicit the medical community for equipment and supplies.” He secured one exam table and was told the clinic needed another — an obstetrics/gynecology exam table for women’s health care.

Not long after, Van Pelt said, a dentist called and offered to donate a dental chair, which he accepted.Gov. Kate Brown speaks at the Founders Day celebration Aug. 13 in Cornelius.

The clinic’s nurse made it clear a dental chair was not quite what she had in mind for an ob/gyn exam table.

“I would argue that was the beginning of our dental program,” Van Pelt joked.

By 1985, Virginia Garcia was serving around 6,000 patients a year.

Forty years later, the organization expects to serve about 40,000 patients this year. There are now 16 clinics in two counties, including six school-based health centers — the first opened in Tigard in 2008 and the most recent last year in Tualatin.

Virginia Garcia’s Cornelius Wellness Center opened in 2012, not far from the site of the original clinic. The center includes a commercial teaching kitchen, group exercise spaces, public greenways and a community garden. The facility offers medical, dental and vision care.

Founder Jim Zaleski recalled going to migrant camps and farm fields as a Vista volunteer in 1968.

“We were a group of rough and ready community organizers,” he said. “We had to make a noise.”

In the summer of 1975, he said, after Virginia Garcia’s death, “a confluence of good things came out of a tragedy.”

Zaleski, who served as executive director during the mid-1980s, lauded the organization’s growth over the years. As executive director, he said, the organization’s budget was “breaking $1 million. Now it’s $52 million. Virginia Garcia (Memorial Health Center) made it because it has heart.”Jose Garcia, one of the founders of Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center, is honored.

“Today we are the (nationwide) model,” added founder Hector Hinojosa. “We are practicing culturally and linguistically appropriate medicine.”

Virginia Garcia Memorial Foundation spokeswoman Olivia MacKenzie said 16 founders or family members of founders attended the Founders Day reception.

Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center’s 40th anniversary gala is slated for Oct. 16 at the Sentinel Hotel in downtown Portland, and includes dinner, a live auction and entertainment.

Tickets are on sale now at: virginiagarcia.ejoinme.org/40thGala.

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