During the tumultuous period of the late 1960s, many people began to look closely at their communities, pitch in, and do something to remedy many of the problems faced by Americans. In some ways, this is how Good Neighbor Healthcare Center came into being.
In 1968, Dr. Robert M. Eckert, inspired by the evangelical ministry of the Church of the Redeemer Episcopal Church, left a very successful private medical practice and opened what was then known as the Fourth Ward Kennedy Brothers Clinic to serve the poverty–stricken neighborhoods near downtown Houston that included historic Freedmen’s Town. According to a newspaper account of the time, members of the Fourth Ward community named the clinic in honor of the then recently fallen Kennedy brothers, John and Robert, as well as Senator Edward Kennedy. In fact, the community played a key role in the management of the clinic in the early years, beginning a tradition of involvement that has endured to this day.
At one time, the clinic was open on West Dallas, then moved to 312 Pierce, before eventually finding a permanent home in the old Weingarten’s grocery store at 277 West Gray. Through the years, the original clinic provided extensive medical care to the community, depending on a corps of volunteers and staff members who worked for very little pay. An old agency newsletter recounts that these volunteers “did whatever it took to keep the community healthy. If a house needed screens to protect children from insect bites, they put up screens, they fixed the plumbing, and they fed the hungry.”
The Harris County Medical Society Bulletin favorably noted the work of Dr. Eckert and the Fourth Ward Clinic in September 1972, and again in November 1974. The Clinic was becoming known in the community for the excellence of its care.
However, by 1976, the group that had opened the clinic felt a calling to other missions, and the Fourth Ward Clinic ceased operating, leaving many in the community without adequate primary health care services once more. But the Fourth Ward Clinic would soon rise like a phoenix, due largely to the dedication of a small group of people who – quite simply – wouldn’t give up. Mary Lou Hall, a former Board member, was intricately involved in the efforts to revive the clinic, and has very vivid recollections of that critical moment in its history. She was interviewed in 2002.
“In the fall of 1976, our church, St. John the Divine, received a letter from the Reverend Nat McGinnis, who was Director of Anchor House in the Fourth Ward, requesting our Thanksgiving food offering. So I happened to be in church one afternoon and our rector then was the Reverend Maurice Benitez (later to become Bishop Benitez of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas). His door was open and he called me in to discuss the letter with him.” Out of that discussion, Ms. Hall and a group from her church went to see Reverend McGinnis to see “what his true needs were.” Reverend McGinnis didn’t hesitate to answer – of course, it was health care for his community, and, specifically, the re-opening of the Fourth Ward Clinic that had closed earlier in the year. And so it happened. Greatly aided by the addition of representatives from St. Philip Presbyterian and Chapelwood United Methodist churches, and with the Fourth Ward community involved as well, the group began to meet regularly.
“I like to think of the foundation of this clinic with four corners – St. John, St. Philip, Chapelwood, and the Fourth Ward community,” Ms. Hall fondly stated. “And it was a bit of an exhilarating experience to see how well we worked together, and how we were really quite a diverse group. And the main thing we had in common was that none of us knew anything about medical care, but we were very dedicated to re-opening the clinic. And it was very hard work.”
“People came together and felt like this clinic ought to be re-opened,” added David Martin, a commercial realtor who was also active in these early efforts and served for a time in the 1980s as the President of Good Neighbor.
And through their hard work, the steps necessary to open a medical clinic began to happen. Dr. Harold Nelson, a sociology professor from the University of Houston, offered some invaluable expertise and leadership during this time, and eventually, according to Ms. Hall, “a doctor was found who was willing to come out of retirement and work for a year at a low salary.”
Miraculously, the Fourth Ward Clinic re-opened on May 1, 1977, with a mere $900 in operating funds. Within the week, however, M.D. Anderson Foundation awarded the clinic a $25,000 grant, and the clinic’s doors were open for good.
Following those initial hurdles, the clinic grew slowly, step by step. Although it would experience some financial challenges from time to time, the faith and persistence of the Board never wavered. The Fourth Ward Clinic once again became a mainstay in the community. Jeanne Sickman-Hanks, who served as the Executive Director from 1989 to 1998, recalled in 2002 the sense of closeness that the clinic enjoyed among its neighbors and patients. “I live in the neighborhood and have lived here since 1989 and on the first Halloween I was here, my trick or treaters were patients. Or I would be out with my dog, or be out bicycling and see the patients. I realized how powerful Good Neighbor was when I got to know the patients. When you see the impact it has on some people’s lives, it’s tremendous.”
Liz Hogan, who was the clinic’s nutritionist for about 10 years, remembered that the patients she served always had economic worries, though most of them had jobs: “A lot of them were just coming into the city, just getting started. And a lot of them were people who lived in the neighborhood. I used to get food from the church. They built me a little place for the food pantry. They gave me maybe $300 a month and I would order food to help the street people that came to the clinic. A lot of people did come in both sick and hungry.”
As the clinic provided more services to the community, renovation of the facility became a necessity. The west side of the building was refurbished in 1983-84, and this was followed by the remodeling of the east side (known fondly to staff members as “the dungeon”) in 1996. “The big mechanical device that provided the heating and the cooling for the building was back there,” Ms. Sickman-Hanks explained, “and it looked like a dragon. The dungeon was the right name! We wanted to use the space because we were bursting at the seams.”
By 1986, the Board voted to change the name of the clinic to Good Neighbor Healthcare Center, to reflect the wider role that the clinic now played in the community. Indeed, Good Neighbor now serves individuals from nearly every zip code in the Greater Houston area. During the 1990s, Good Neighbor reached agreements with the University of Texas and Baylor College of Medicine, so that patients could have full and affordable access to quality pediatric care, adult care, and midwifery services. And following years of planning and fundraising, Good Neighbor proudly opened the Good Neighbor Dental Clinic in 2000, addressing a critical need in the community for regular dental care.