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Jon Bon Jovi Helps in Town's Health Care Woes

Posted - Jan. 5, 2004 at 8:40 a.m.



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Like many American towns, Red Bank, N.J., is in the midst of a serious crisis. Thousands of its working-class residents have no health insurance, and, consequently, inadequate access to health care. Unlike other towns, however, Red Bank has an activist minister, a visionary physician, and a homegrown rock star who joined forces to address the problem.

Dr. Gene Cheslock, one of Red Bank's most beloved physicians, saw the impact of America's health care crisis on his community every day. "Let's face it, we have Doctors Without Borders. They fly to Guatemala, they'll fly to Africa. Well, we have that need inherent in America," he said.

Shocking Numbers of Uninsured

What convinced Cheslock it was time for a new and daring endeavor in Red Bank was what Donald Warner, a Baptist minister and former school superintendent, discovered when he set out to see exactly how bad health care was for Red Bank's working poor.

Warner walked door-to-door, visiting 400 households, and determined that some 95 percent of Red Bank's Hispanic households, and roughly 30 percent of the area's African-American households, were uninsured. Warner said he was shocked by the numbers of uninsured.

For Cheslock, it was a clear call to action. He pitched a plan to create a free clinic to Red Bank's mayor, Ed McKenna. The mayor promised support but Cheslock was left to find his own funding. "I intentionally felt that the town should distance itself and it should function as a facility on its own so that it wasn't seen as a form of welfare or anything such as that," McKenna said.

Cheslock was undeterred. He rolled up his sleeves and soon a local construction company rolled in with the first major donation - an old trailer to be converted into a clinic.

But funding wasn't the only obstacle Cheslock faced. The tough Red Bank zoning board voted to pull the plug on the plan for the clinic. He also faced resistance from some in the community who said the town's illegal immigrants didn't deserve access to the clinic. "These were some prominent individuals in the community," Cheslock said. "And my retort to them was 'Who takes care of your children? Who mows your lawn. Who paints your house? Who waits on you in the restaurant?' ... And it shut the naysayers up quickly."

From Humble Beginnings ...

So with the humble beginning of a trailer in a parking lot, Cheslock's vision of a free clinic for Red Bank's poor was realized in July 2000. The local hospital donated equipment. Doctors and nurses volunteered their time, and three patients visited the clinic that first night in July 2000.

The clinic doesn't just serve as a crucial health care center for the poor. It also serves as tribute to the work of Dr. James Parker Jr., and his father, Dr. James Parker Sr., two African-American physicians who selflessly cared for generations of Red Bank's poor. The clinic - the Parker Family Health Center - is named in their honor.

In the three and a half years since the center's opening, it has exceeded Cheslock's hopes for it. "I thought it had a chance, but I never thought it would succeed the way it has," he said.

Today, the Parker clinic has more than 6,000 patients - men, women and children. It's easy to see why patients love the Parker Clinic. But the doctors who volunteer here might actually love it more.

"We're practicing here the way I practiced when I first started," said Dr. Gene Canter, "You know, without worrying about lawyers looking over your shoulder. Without worrying about papers and forms and HMOs and all that other garbage."

The Parker Family Health Center is based on a model called Volunteers in Medicine, started about 10 years ago. Today there are 25 similar clinics around the country, serving hundreds of thousands of patients. And 40 more are in the pipeline.

Critics say the clinics are simply prolonging America's health care problems, by taking attention away from the need to overhaul the system on a national basis. But Amy Hamlin, executive director of the Volunteers in Medicine Institute, counters: "We don't take a political stance. We want to get services to people when they need them. And they need them now."

Rock Star Chips In

It costs half a million dollars a year to run the Red Bank clinic. Most of the money comes from local businesses and residents. Enter rock star Jon Bon Jovi. A hometown hero, Bon Jovi grew up in the neighborhood and has never forgotten his roots.

"A million people in New Jersey are uninsured; 200,000 of them are kids. How could I not get involved? This is my back yard," he said.

When it became apparent the Parker Family clinic needed a bigger home, Dr. Cheslock turned to Bon Jovi and his wife, Dorothea. The Bon Jovis hosted a number of successful fund-raisers. But the event everyone still talks about is Bon Jovi's concert at the local high school.

On a sweltering day this past July - almost three years to the day after the clinic first opened in a trailer - the Parker Family Health Center moved into a beautiful new building, completely paid for.

At the celebration marking the clinic's opening in its new home, Bon Jovi reminded the audience of the Parkers' contributions to the community: "Gene Cheslock made a difference here in the community because Dr. Parker and his father made a difference ... And I think what I'm going to do is ask that you inspire someone - especially yourselves - to make a difference."

For More Information on the Parker Family Health Center: Parker Family Health Center 211 Shrewsbury Ave. Red Bank, NJ 07701 E-mail: information@parkerhc.com

For More Information on Volunteers in Medicine: Visit their Web site: www.vimi.org

To see more on this story, go to http://www.ABCNews.go.com

Copyright 2003 ABCNEWS.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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