For Good: St. Pete Free Clinic launches Saving Grace Project

Anina Towns knows she's one of the lucky ones.

She says she came "this close'' to losing it all. Hanging out with the wrong crowd in her hometown of Clearwater, substance abuse, in and out of jail.
"I made bad choices all around, time and time again,'' she admits.

Now Towns, single and 34, is ready to embark on a new chapter with endless possibilities.
"I'm proof that you can reach your dreams. It takes dedication, hard work and self-control, and it takes a village to make it happen,'' she says.

For Towns, that village has been the Women's Residence program through the St. Petersburg Free Clinic. This month, Towns left the residence that has been her home for 16 months to move into her own apartment. With the skills she's learned through the program -- budgeting, time management, how to break addictions, balancing work and school -- she feels empowered and ambitious.  She has a fulltime job with a local hotel and is maintaining a 3.5 grade point average at St. Petersburg College, where she's working toward a degree in human services.

One day, she plans on counseling young women who want a way out of the same pathological path she was on.

"I can be example how it can be done. I know what it's like to not having any self-worth. And I promise you this is a much better place to be,'' Towns says.

The St. Petersburg Free Clinic is hoping for more success stories like Towns. The nonprofit has been in the "quiet phase'' of a fundraising campaign to generate $4 million toward expanding the women's program from a 20-bed residence to 50 beds. So far, private donors have contributed nearly $3 million toward the project.

Soup's on for Saving Grace

The public phase of the campaign -- called the "Saving Grace Project'' -- will be launched Oct. 2 at the clinic's annual "Soup's On'' event at the St. Petersburg Coliseum. A lunch of homemade soup and bread will be served from 11:45 a.m. to 1 p.m. to raise consciousness about hunger in Pinellas County. There's no cost, but donations will be accepted for the clinic.

Getting the word out to the public about the need for more shelter beds for homeless women who are homeless and committed to turning their lives around is critical, says clinic Executive Director Beth Houghton. The clinic gets about 150 calls a month regarding housing for females, but can only accept one to two new residents. A participant's length of stay typically ranges from six months to a year, so beds are at a premium.

"We are the only stand-alone program in the [Pinellas] County for this population,'' Houghton says. "And if there's no safe haven for them to go, the chances are they end up in the same place -- back on the streets or behind bars. It's our mission to help them stop the cycle.''

And it's only one of several missions of the St. Petersburg Free Clinic, established 44 years ago. It began as a free health clinic for the working poor and those not eligible for government care with a handful of volunteer doctors and nurses. It has evolved over the decades, expanding to eight programs in the downtown area, including a medical and dental clinic, an emergency food pantry, a community kitchen offering a hot meal six days a week, a 25-bed men's residence, the women's home and housing for 14 families on the brink of homelessness. Its motto is "Changing Lives with Help and Hope.''
About 90 percent of its $6 million annual budget comes from private donors. While the funding is essential, Houghton says the backbone of the entire operation is the volunteers.
"We couldn't do everything we want to accomplish without the tireless workers who give their time and energy,'' she says. "They make the difference. They keep our administrative costs low and help us stretch every dollar.''

Paying it forward

Joyce Karoleski is one of them. A retired registered nurse and businesswoman, she wanted something useful to do with her time after she sold her company. A visit to check out the health clinic convinced her to get her Florida nursing license and donate her skills and be a financial supporter. She's now going on her fifth year as a volunteer, working two to three days a week with people who don't have funds or access to medical care.

Wasn't the Affordable Health Care Act supposed to change that?

"Don't get me going down that road,'' she says. ''People in high places who make these decisions haven't had to shop for health insurance. People are still falling through the cracks. They need to pay for food and housing before they can pay for a premium.''

There's a residual benefit to volunteering at the clinic. It's renewed Karoleski's spirit about her chosen profession.

"This is what health care is all about,'' she says. "We have personal contact with our patients. They're grateful for our help. It's not all mired down in bureaucracy. I love this place.''

A few blocks away at the Women's Residence, Towns expresses the same sentiment. Although she's moved out of the house that gave her a safe haven, she plans to return on a regular basis to work with incoming residents. A case management team also continues to work with former residents for up to a year after their departure.

"Living in a structured environment and being accountable to staff and the other ladies made the difference for me. So it's my turn to give back and be an example,'' Towns says. "I'm a walking miracle. You are looking at a pure act of God, considering where I came from and where I'm going now.'' 

Michelle Bearden is a multimedia journalist based in south Tampa. She placed second in the nation behind a writer from Time magazine in the 2014 Religion Newswriters Association Supple Feature Religion Writer of the Year. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees

Read more articles by Michelle Bearden.

Michelle Bearden is a feature writer at 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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