It's the house that Irma built. Actually, it's the clinic that Irma built--and it's the largest free clinic in the United States.
She didn't pour the cement or drive in the nails at the Venice Family Clinic, but she might as well have. Irma Colen knows what it takes to make dreams come true--hard work and giving of yourself without expecting anything back.
Having a Rolodex with 30 years' worth of generous friends and people in high places also helps. So does a lot of heart and the kind of compassion that comes from going through personal hard times.
Colen, 73, grew up poor in Chicago. Though the people around her suffered from economic despair, she said, they believed in the idealism that promised a better world for the good of all.
"I remember my mother standing in the park near our house selling potato latkes for a nickel but never turning anyone away who was hungry. In those days, neither did anyone else we knew," she said.
When Colen was 12, she developed rheumatic fever. Because her family was indigent, she was placed in a hospital charity ward. She spent the following year attending a school for children with physical disabilities. "I remember feeling that if I was to get well it would be because the people taking care of me truly cared about my health," she said.
The experience of being poor, sick and completely dependent on the goodwill of others influenced her decision to save the Venice Family Clinic from closure 16 years ago. "My husband, Lou, and I were on a cruise, and I met a young physician's assistant, and she told me about this little clinic where she worked in Venice, and that it was on the verge of closing for lack of funding," she said.
Colen was already experienced at raising money for political candidates and causes, but she had no experience in the nonprofit area. "At first, I was too busy, so I would tell the clinic's board what to do, but nothing happened," she said. "Then I changed my approach and decided that doing the fund raising myself and using the Robin Hood theory was the only way to save the clinic."
Not only did Colen save the clinic, she made it prosper.
"Irma Colen can be credited with raising $15 million since she's been associated with the clinic," said the clinic's executive director, Elizabeth Benson Forer. "Without her, we would not be here."
Neither would Parents Without Partners, an organization she founded while supporting two children on her own before remarrying in 1965. For 11 tough years prior to that, Colen was single and in dire financial straits.
She created the group because she didn't want her children to feel isolated, she said, and she wanted people like herself to meet others in the same situation.
That situation ended when she met Lou. But it was far from a Cinderella story.
"He was definitely the most eligible man around, and he enjoyed that status," she said. "When I realized I was in love with him, I told him either it was only me or we could just be friends. It took a year before he proposed."
Today, the Venice Family Clinic's Irma and Lou Colen Administration Building is concrete testimony to their partnership.
And the growth of the clinic as a whole is testimony to Irma Colen's astute fund-raising strategies.
Calling on friends to contribute money was one part of that strategy, but Colen knew that the whole Venice community needed to be involved, especially the community of artists who live there.
As a result, the Venice Art Walk was born.
Colen's idea for the Art Walk was that people would pay a fee to tour the studios of acclaimed artists, such as Billy Al Bengston, Charles Arnoldi or Guy Dill, with a top art expert. "The first Art Walk in 1980 raised $35,000, and I thought I would faint. Last year, we raised a half-million dollars," she said.
Now, there are at least five fund-raising projects going on simultaneously, overseen by a full-time development director. The projects are run on a $4-million annual operating budget, two-thirds of which comes from the private sector. The clinic has grown from two small offices to an 18,000-square-foot facility serving 11,576 uninsured working poor, unemployed and homeless adults and children a year. Close to 200 patients are seen every day. Colen and about 2,500 volunteers donate their time to the clinic, including 500 physicians.
But Colen demurs when the credit is given. When President Clinton presented the President's 1994 Volunteer Action Award to the clinic, Colen's name was on the award. But it was clinic co-founder Dr. Mayer Davidson who accepted the award on behalf of the staff.
Today, Colen is in charge of special gifts--donations of more than $1,250--and holds the title of president emeritus of the Venice Family Clinic. She's gratified about the resurgence of people coming forward to give.
"The feeling is that government is not going to help, and (the donors) are sad that there are so many people in need." She's also horrified at what she considers a mean-spirited tone coming out of Washington now and fears the country is moving backward.
"Don't give up," she says to Clinton, "and don't give in to those who oppose a health-care system for everyone."