It was 1978 and Audrey Goldman needed a doctor. With a history of abnormal pap smears, she required medical attention every six months. But the former Los Angeles schoolteacher was temporarily broke and newly single. Although she held a master's degree in counseling, Goldman lacked the internship hours necessary for licensing.
Her only option, she believed, was the Valley Free Clinic in North Hollywood.
"It was truly out of the '60s," Goldman recalled. "Everything about it was laissez-faire. Everybody looked like a hippie, even the administrator. They had long hair and wore unhemmed jeans. You couldn't tell the clients from the staff.
"My first impression as an upper-middle-class person was, 'Maybe I don't belong here.' But the minute I met the staff and saw how they took care of me, I realized looks were deceiving. Volunteers came rain or shine, even with poor working conditions."
That clinic's original location, on Lankershim Boulevard, was neither heated nor air-conditioned. During wintertime, the staff often wore gloves and jackets. Smoking was permitted, and the waiting room was in disarray.
"It was upstairs, without handicapped access," recalled Diane Chamberlain, the clinic's assistant director for the past five years. "You went up very dark stairs to the offices, which, no matter how many times they were painted, always looked dirty."
But times have changed for both Goldman and the clinic. After her initial visit, Goldman received her counseling license by performing an internship for the clinic. Today, she is a therapist and director of programs for the Southern California chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
And she has long since paid the clinic back for services rendered, in donations as well as volunteer service. She even sits on the board of directors.
What about the clinic? It has become a sophisticated center offering a range of services including free AIDS testing, legal assistance, general health care and counseling. Patients are received in a clean and warm office.
Originally founded in 1970 as the North Hollywood Counseling Clinic, the project was the brainchild of a group of Valley College students, doctors and pharmacists who were motivated to form something in the San Fernando Valley akin to the newly established Los Angeles Free Clinic.
Pharmacist Ira Freeman was there from the beginning. After noticing a flyer next to his North Hollywood pharmacy, and with a little soul-searching, he decided to get involved.
"I wanted to have a more positive effect on society. This gave me an opportunity to serve people who were not being served by the establishment," he said.
Soon after he saw the flyer, Freeman attended planning sessions and found himself elected to the first board of directors. At the time, services--which consisted of counseling by volunteers--were offered for free, although donations were accepted.
"The patients were low-income or no-income people who were not part of the general population," said Freeman, who still volunteers once a week at the clinic's dispensary. "The impression we had was that these were people who wouldn't feel comfortable in a normal medical setting."
But by 1975, an evolution was under way. The name changed to the Valley Free Clinic. Medical and optometric services were added, and the clinic became a training ground for interning therapists. State and federal funding for family planning allowed the clinic to begin paying its medical staff for the first time. (Chamberlain said paid physicians receive between $20 to $25 an hour for their work.)
Grants also came from the Valley Mayors Fund for the Homeless, Arco, IBM, Lockheed, J. B. and Emily Van Nuys Charities, MCA Foundation, Greater Los Angeles Partnership for the Homeless, Rockwell Employees Club and the McDonnell Douglas Community Service Group.
With the late '70s came a designated smoking section. The reception area was vacuumed. Trash was emptied. Magazine racks were straightened. A more professional look ensued.
"I think as new people began to be hired, we were looking for those qualities," Goldman said. "Not only are they a warm, loving, giving spirit but are they credentialed; what value system do they have; do they value documenting and record-keeping and organizational skills?"
By the time Ann Britt took over as executive director in 1983, the clinic was undergoing further transitions. The board took a hard look at the realities facing the health care and free clinic movements. A year later, the "free clinic" was dropped and the Valley Community Clinic was born. The reasons were twofold, Britt said.
On a pragmatic level, being licensed by the California Department of Health Services as a community clinic enabled the facility to charge fees based on a sliding income scale. The second consideration was strictly for public relations.