by Mira Reverente
Non-profit groups operate and thrive thanks to their vast volunteer bases, and Thousand Oaks-based Westminster Free Clinic (WFC) is no exception.
On any given Wednesday night throughout the year, volunteers assist over 100 uninsured East County residents from nearby cities Simi Valley, Moorpark, Camarillo, Newbury Park, Thousand Oaks and Westlake Village walk through the doors of the the United Methodist Church on E. Janss Road in Thousand Oaks. “We regrettably have to turn away 40 to 50 patients every week,” said Lisa Safaeinili, executive director of the clinic. “But then they get first priority the following week.”
Volunteers like Alejandra Candelario assist in welcoming the throng. “I help patients with diabetes and heart problems,” said Candelario, a six-year volunteer of the Mi Familia: Family Diabetes Management and Education Program, one of the many programs available at the clinic.
On that busy winter evening, Candelario was handing out materials to the mostly Spanish-speaking population. A bilingual health educator and dietitian are also on hand to help implement the program through dietary planning, quarterly lab tests, weekly glucose monitoring, weigh-ins, nutrition classes, free medications an appointments with other medical personnel on-site.
Vanessa Geronimo, a junior at Westlake High School, was also on hand assisting Candelario and other adult volunteers. Teens like Geronimo offer their time five to six hours every other week as part of WFC’s Students in Action program.
Geronimo, 16, like most of the teen volunteers in the program, is a former patient, along with her parents. “I love that I can help people feel better. It gives me so much satisfaction to be be able to do that,” she said.
There is a two-year minimum commitment for the teens to participate. “For most of them, they are the first ones in their families to attend college,” said Safaeinili. “And some are even considering medical school after being exposed and trained in this environment.”
For those considering college, WFC has tools and mentors as well to help pave the path for interested teens. Joan Stern, an independent college admissions advisor, is one of them. Stern meets with the teens in groups, explains their college options and outlines steps on how to achieve that goal.
“Financial aid is daunting to some,” said Stern. “It is sad to hear that some of their families automatically assume their children can’t attend college because they can’t afford it.”
Stern walks families through the murky waters of the financial aid process beginning in January. She also counsels them about the viability of community colleges, inter-college transfers and even conducts on writing, preparing and completing college applications.
For role models and mentors, the teens turn to volunteer doctors like the husband-and-wife-team of Neil and Lori Shocket. Both emergency medicine practitioners, the Shockets have been treating patients as well as mentoring teens at the clinic for the past two years.
The high-schoolers get front row seats as the Shockets treat hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol and obesity, among others. They average six to nine patients on most Wednesday nights. Outside of WFC, the couple regularly embark on medical missions to Nepal, India, Ghana, Peru and Vietnam.
What attracts them to WFC? “We love to teach and we love the high school program,” said Lori Shocket, who just completed medical school herself recently, with her son. “And we are adrenaline junkies, just like most ER doctors,” said an amused Neil Shocket.
In the next partition over, chiropractor Kenneth Winer was hard at work on doing adjustments and treating neuro-musculoskeletal complaints. “It’s pretty straightforward here but due to the nature of my patients’ jobs, I see a lot of lower back pain, neck pain, sciatica and sprained ankle issues,” said Winer, who practices in Canoga Park.
Retired nurse Mary Pavone has been volunteering at the clinic since 2014. “The best part of volunteering here is seeing people get the medical care they need,” said Pavone. For fellow nurse Pam Barker, she treasures her interactions with the high-schoolers. “I love that they’re getting some valuable hands-on experience,” she said.
Safaeinili appeared tired being on her feet all-night but uncomplaining with a calmness about her that was contagious. A registered dietitian with a masters in public health, she has been at the helm of WFC for the past 13 years, managing the annual $2 million budget, approximately 7,000 patients and over 300 volunteers.
Uninsured herself after a bad car accident during her UC Berkeley days, Safaeinili described the job as “too close to home.” She said, “It is tiring sometimes, but it’s a very rewarding job. I feel blessed in so many ways.”
For more info on WFC, click here.