THE SPOT: Celia Bernstein, director of development at the Westside Family Health Center, stands in front of the clinic. (Daniel Archuleta
THE SPOT: Celia Bernstein, director of development at the Westside Family Health Center, stands in front of the clinic. (Daniel Archuleta

OCEAN PARK BLVD — Looks can be deceiving, especially when it comes to the Westside Family Health Center.

From the outside it’s like any small business along Ocean Park Boulevard. There’s nothing remarkable about it, just a small logo on a tinted window and a sign directing visitors to the appropriate entrance.

But step inside the 1,500-foot space and you find a bustling clinic. Patients, who include those eking out a living on minimum wage or public assistance, are seated elbow to elbow in the clinic’s waiting room, which feels no larger than a storage shed. Nurses and members of the nonprofit’s administration are nearly stacked on top of one another, surrounded by filing cabinets and make-shift work stations cluttered with paperwork and photos of babies who have had their first shots at the center.

It’s tight, but they’re used to it. They’ve been serving the community for 40 years now, and they show no signs of slowing down. Their mission is too important.

“We’re here to provide high quality care to people who wouldn’t otherwise have access, but also to educate them in such a way to help them take control of their health care,” said President & CEO Debra Farmer, who has led the organization founded in 1974 for the past 15 years. “Just coming to a clinic or seeing a doctor will not make you healthier. You have to take some control, but you can’t unless you have the information. I think that’s what sets community health centers apart. It’s the amount of education they give to their patients.”

That can be a challenge, especially when roughly 93 percent of your patients live at 200 percent below the federal poverty line ($28,000 a year for an individual) and 81 percent don’t have health insurance.

While the Affordable Care Act has the potential to reduce that last figure by about 20 to 25 percent, the health center will still be charged with treating some of the most vulnerable, which is why Farmer and her staff are working harder than ever to expand their services and outreach into schools, and still cover the uninsured.

They need your help.

This Saturday, the Westside Family Health Center is hosting its 40th birthday bash, a fundraiser complete with food, drinks, dancing and a live auction. L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky will be the guest of honor. He is stepping down because of term limits this year but he has been instrumental in helping secure funding for the clinic, Farmer said. So has Congressman Henry Waxman, who is also retiring.

“They are near and dear to my heart,” she said.

The health center has a budget of $4.9 million, with about 20 percent coming from private donors. Farmer will have to increase that amount if she wants to reach her goal of moving into a larger space to accommodate the roughly 9,700 patients who visit each year from over 250 zip codes.

One of those donors is Dr. Paul Song, an oncologist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and a Santa Monica resident. Song said he gives a considerable amount of cash each year because he realizes the clinic is often the only place some can get the care they need.

“I just feel that our healthcare system is broken and while the Affordable Care Act will help … , a lot of people will still continue to fall through the cracks,” he said. “Community health centers are really the last line of defense.”

In addition to giving money, Song and his wife have participated in toy drives for young patients of the clinic, which assists women with prenatal care and gynecology, takes care of sick kids, helps with breast feeding, treats high blood pressure in men and goes to area high schools to teach teens about the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases and substance abuse thanks to the center’s mobile clinic.

As the director of community outreach and education, Julie Kirk goes along for the ride with the mobile clinic and sees first-hand the impact the health center has in schools. It’s one of the reasons why she has been with the clinic for 15 years.

“I love my job. I feel like we get to do a little bit of everything,” she said. “I’m really amazed sometimes that this grassroots organization is still here serving the community. We’ve never lost that philosophy and that energy. Patients appreciate that. It’s not just a place to get health care. We are part of the community.”

Employees, as part of their Heart to Heart campaign, collect food and clothing or help provide insulin to those in need like homeless families at St. Joseph Center in Venice or people devastated by natural disasters. The goal is to help community partners where the clinic’s patients also go for services.

“The clinic for me is the greatest. It has taught me to take better care of myself,” said Elisabeth Davila, a patient and board member of the clinic. (Over 50 percent of the board has to be comprised of patients under federal law.) “I love the health classes that I take. I have been treated very well. The providers treat me with respect and friendliness and they are always smiling.”

Shirley Ho is one of them. A former patient, she is now a nurse at the clinic. She started off as a volunteer and then became a director of the teen clinic after earning a master’s degree in social work. She wanted to get more hands on so she became a nurse and has fallen in love with the job. Ho encourages people thinking about donating to take a step inside the clinic.

“You see results with the money you donate,” she said. “I could make more money working for a cardiologist, but you do it because you love it and you love the goals of the facility. There’s a very thin line between those who have and those who don’t have. Only a couple of things need to happen to put you in the position where you don’t have healthcare. If that were you, you would want the best healthcare you could get. That’s what keeps me here. To make sure that happens.”

For tickets to the fundraiser, visit or call (310) 450-4773.

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