Visions of a Patch Adams Free Clinic in North Phila.

Hunter "Patch" Adams will talk up the proposed Allegheny Avenue clinic at public speeches this week. Courtesy of Gesundheit! Institute
Hunter "Patch" Adams will talk up the proposed Allegheny Avenue clinic at public speeches this week. Courtesy of Gesundheit! Institute
Posted: July 23, 2013

In Patch Adams, a red-clown-nosed Robin Williams dreams up and runs a hospital where doctors enthusiastically work for janitors' pay, where orchards abut cancer wards, and the healing powers of laughter and love outshine scalpels and scans.

The 1998 blockbuster was based on a true story, although the Gesundheit! Institute's medical facility had run out of money and closed 15 years before. The doctor's dream never died, however, and now has inspired another: a movement of Patch Adams Free Clinics nationwide, beginning in North Philadelphia.

The pilot project - an ambitious local proposal for a five-acre community with an orchard, greenhouses, edible "food forest," and low-income housing in one of the poorest sections of the city - has been quietly moving forward for several years. Hunter "Patch" Adams has given his blessing and his name, and will raise its profile with two public talks this week.

Paul Glover suggested it four years ago. In "an act of madness," Adams says, he agreed: "I love radicals."

Glover is a visionary and serial social justice entrepreneur who grew up in Upstate New York. In 1991, he created Ithaca HOURS, a local currency in which an hour's labor equals $10 that is accepted in trade by businesses, individuals, and utilities all over town. Millions of dollars have been traded, and the program has been copied all over the country.

Then he began a health alliance that offered help for the uninsured and later opened its own free clinic. Glover wrote about that experience in Health Democracy: Liberating Americans from Medical Insurance. (Among his other books are Hometown Money and Deep Green Jobs.)

He moved here in 2005. "I wanted to explore the capability of rebuilding a rust-belt city toward balance with nature," said Glover, 66. He soon founded the Philadelphia Orchard Project, whose mission is to turn vacant lots into green spaces that grow healthy food and provide food security.

The Patch Adams Free Clinic combines all his passions. The core clinic would provide free preventive and primary care for all, with an emphasis on complementary medicine.

For a small fee - or donated work hours - members of the cooperative would gain ownership and access to services ranging from dental and optical to massage, chiropractic, and even veterinary medicine, possibilities limited only by the availability of volunteer professionals.

Current plans are to build at 1729 W. Allegheny Ave., in the Tioga section, an old industrial site alongside SEPTA tracks whose last crumbling buildings were demolished after community protests a decade ago.

The surrounding neighborhood has the highest percentage of adults in the city ever found to have diabetes (21 percent) and the highest percentage of children that ever had asthma (37 percent), according to the 2012 Southeastern Pennsylvania Household Health Survey.

"Poverty is institutionalized violence, and it is destroying the health and well being of people and families and communities every single day," said Sister Mary Scullion, executive director of Project HOME. The Patch Adams holistic approach "is wonderful," said Scullion, whose organization expects to break ground in January on an $18 million health and wellness center two miles from the vacant lot.

Verna Brown-Tyner, a founder of Tioga United, a community group, has long fought to improve the site. Several years ago she was talking with Jason Lerner, an owner, about her "vision of a healthy living campus." Then she met Glover, and the idea mushroomed.

An option to buy the property was signed last year. It expired in May, but Lerner wrote in an e-mail that "living healthy has always been a goal of mine" and that the contract could easily be extended.

Nefertari Muhammad, a composting educator, met Glover at an Earth Day event. She plans to run a clinic "hoop house" - simplified greenhouse, made of semicircular ribs covered in plastic - that could supply the on-site community with fruits and vegetables year-round. She will also teach residents how to do it.

Jim Wurster, the project's technical expert, is a former software engineer for Bank of New York Mellon. He has a deep interest in sustainable structures that operate off the grid. An "Earthship," for example, which is Glover's aim as well, may be built atop old tires packed with dirt and insulated with recycled materials. A passive solar design would provide heating and cooling; photovoltaic cells would generate electricity.

Groups of Philadelphia University architecture students spent last fall or spring semesters visiting health clinics and homeless shelters and the lot in Tioga before creating 18 sample designs.

"It is a very tough challenge," said associate professor David Kratzer, to meet the sustainability goals as well as Patch Adams' desire for community, not a place "where you go to get a strep culture and then go home." The student designs include cafes, farmer's markets, day care, and senior care although a professional architect will eventually be retained.

The clinic contract with Patch Adams, who will act as an unpaid consultant, covers a wide range of issues, from member discounts at local businesses, to a spirit of whimsy ("clowns, furniture foolery") and respect ("We tend visitors, not clients. We treat them as equals. Healing requires Love and Time. Hugs are offered as suited.")

One difference with the rural West Virginia hospital that Adams was unable to sustain is cooperative ownership. Glover views this project as an economic development model, with food production and green jobs training. It could be built, he guesses, for "a couple million dollars and a lot of volunteer labor." He said more than 20 physicians have expressed interest, as have many medical students.

The community, however, has been suspicious of outsiders and unconventional plans. "You don't even have a supermarket 10 blocks from here. A farm: 'Oh, my God!' This is new to them," said Tom Greene, a former real estate agent who was involved in the beginning.

Over numerous meetings, the neighbors nixed a composting operation (the compost will be trucked in) and a structure that looks like old tires (it will be hidden).

To organizers, the biggest hurdle is raising money to buy the land. Glover will not discuss the price and said Sunday night that only about $50,000 had been raised so far. But he says Patch Adams' name and his talks in Center City on Tuesday and North Philadelphia on Wednesday are key to fund-raising.

Adams, though, judges himself "a raging failure" at the money game. The movie, with $202 million worldwide box office, "made me a folk hero" but gave nothing to the hospital, he said. Over 40 years, there have been virtually no corporate donations.

Perhaps that is to be expected for a man who says loudly and repeatedly that the health-care system is controlled by money instead of caring and must be dismantled. (President Obama's health-care overhaul is a baby step forward within a corrupt system, he says.)

As for Philadelphia, "I'm really thrilled to be coming there and claiming idealism. I'm 68, and I'm on fire," Adams said.

"If you know the statistics and you are not doing something about them, in my harsh world, you don't care."


For Information

This week's talks by Hunter "Patch" Adams are free and open to the public.

Center City: 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Drexel University College of Medicine's Geary Auditorium, 15th and Vine Streets.

North Philadelphia: 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Mercy Neighborhood Ministries, 20th and Venango Streets.

For details about the proposed clinic, call 215-805-8330 or go to www.patchadamsclinic.org


Contact Don Sapatkin at 215-854-2617 or dsapatkin@phillynews.com.

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