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Doctor's Orders

Dreamers come to the Church Health Center to learn how to start their own health-care ministry.

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Earlier this month, Sue Head was basically on a one-woman crusade to bring a Church Health Center-type clinic to Branson, Missouri. But after two days in Memphis with 30 of her countrymen, things have changed.

"It's a bunch of people's crusade now," she says.

In part because of how many people came from Branson, the Church Health Center last week held its largest "Replication" class since the workshop began 10 years ago. The class, which is held twice a year, teaches people how they can start a faith-based health-care clinic.

"We started Replication as an efficient way of getting information to people around the country," says Maryan Tonole, development specialist for the Church Health Center. "People weren't getting all the information they needed from random visits throughout the year."

At least 11 other clinics around the country credit their beginnings to the Church Health Center and its Replication class. During the two-day workshop, participants hear from founder Dr. Scott Morris, tour the campus, and learn about center fund-raising, operations, and volunteers.

To give participants an idea of what the Church Health Center was like a decade after its founding, the class workbook hasn't been updated since 1997.

Founded in 1987, the center saw 12 patients on its first day. Currently, they have about 36,000 patient visits a year, most of which are people who are employed but do not have health insurance.

The center also includes four buildings and the Hope and Healing Center, an 80,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art wellness facility built with an eye toward preventative care.

"The Church Health Center has changed so much since 1997," Tonole says. "Even if they just came to Replication to find out how to open a free immunization clinic, when they see Hope and Healing, they are blown away."

"To try to show a start-up ministry what we are and how we operate now, it's like someone wanting to know how to run a church carnival and you taking them to Disneyworld."

Generally, many of the workshop participants are not people with medical backgrounds but are lay people who the Church Health Center says are "called" to help make health care affordable and accessible.

"I think the most popular question is: How do you get physicians to volunteer?" Tonole says. "Dr. Morris will tell them that nearly all doctors went into medicine because they wanted to help people, so it's as simple as asking them."

The cost for the class is $50 for the first participant from a certain area, and $40 for each additional person from that area.

"We think of it as one of our ministries," Tonole says. "Not only do we want to make a difference in Memphis, but we can show not-for-profits in other communities how they can create a successful health-care ministry."

Stephanie Abney came from Billings, Montana, after learning of the Church Health Center via the Internet. She and her church are in the "dream stage" of creating a holistic health ministry.

"Dr. Morris talked to us for an hour. Then later, on our tour, we saw him with his white coat on helping the poor," she says. "It's easy to believe in somebody when you see them walking the walk and not just talking the talk."

Head's Branson group is also in the dreaming stage, but she was well aware of Morris and his staff walking the walk.

A Memphis native, she grew up three blocks from the Church Health Center. Her mother volunteered there, and her father was on the founding board of the Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association.

Now the executive director of the Keeter Center for Character Education at College of the Ozarks, she has lived in Branson for eight years.

"Branson is an amazing community. I can't say enough good things about it. However, we're in the hospitality industry," she says of the town that has called itself the "live entertainment capital of the world."

Head brought a pharmacist, hospital board members, church representatives, a massage therapist, and the county commissioner with her to Memphis.

"I probably took a legal pad full of notes. I'm so glad we didn't have to learn these things the hard way," Head says.

"Preventative care coupled with acute care is a winning combination. Our real desire is to do both. To create sustainable change, you have to do something that gets to the root of the problem," she says.

And now she can't wait to put legs on it and get it going. But she's going to try and be patient.

"I heard Dr. Morris say it's more important to do it right than to open your doors quickly. That was a golden nugget for me."

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