Valley Community Clinic in North Hollywood is hard to miss. A brightly colored Tim Fields mural is splashed across the front of the building, inviting patients to enter.
But as we've heard since childhood, it's not what's on the outside that counts. What's happening inside the community health center is what's most impressive.
Just ask Christopher Morgan, one of five volunteers recently honored by the clinic for outstanding service. The 54-year-old Encino resident said he shows up every Saturday to counsel patients before and after HIV testing because it makes him feel good.
"Taking care of AIDS patients can be traumatic, but I feel enriched at the end of the day," he said.
Like many of the clinic's 160 volunteers, Morgan was trained by the staff and later became state-certified to counsel patients. He also educates them about safe sexual practices.
"I once counseled a rape victim, and one time sat with a man who found out he was negative for the virus and he just needed to cry," Morgan said.
Susan Walsh, a 53-year-old psychotherapist, said she's committed to the clinic because of a strong belief in community-based programs.
"We must rebuild our communities," said the volunteer, who works about 70 hours a month counseling patients. "We're not connected to our neighbors anymore. The clinic uses a staff that's involved in the community."
Founded in 1970 by a group of mental-health workers as a safe haven for the disenfranchised, Valley Community Clinic opened as a counseling center and an alternative to traditional, private services.
In 1975, it became the Valley Free Clinic and added family-planning and optometry services. By the late 1980s, the facility was offering HIV and AIDS testing and education.
Today, the clinic provides services each year to about 40,000 low-income, uninsured or unemployed patients, including children, teens and the homeless.
As part of the clinic's community outreach program, Diane Nathanson, a North Hollywood business owner, organizes a holiday food, toy and furniture drive.
Burbank resident Lauren Schmidt, 49, counsels HIV-infected patients and their families and friends. The volunteer stayed on at the clinic after completing his five-year licensing internship.
The clinic's educational and counseling programs represent the heart of its mission, but those seeking free HIV testing, optometry services, cancer screening and treatment for diabetes and high blood pressure also are welcome.
That's where Dr. Lazaro Chapa comes in. The 43-year-old Van Nuys family practitioner is a full-time staffer who originally joined as a volunteer because he recognized the need for inexpensive health care for the underserved.
"My parents were migrant farm workers, and I always went to clinics," Chapa said. "I love it here because the patients really appreciate what we do for them."
Said Schmidt: "I'm so proud to be part of this clinic because of their respect for the clientele. We service the working poor, but don't treat them as numbers. They need a safe place, and remarkably, they find it right here."
The Valley Community Clinic is at 5648 Vineland Ave., North Hollywood. Call (818) 763-8836.