The Clarke Middle Health Center celebrated its grand opening on Thursday, Nov. 10, introducing the Athens-Clarke County community to the many free medical, mental health and legal services provided to students, staff and families. Through a collaboration between the Clarke County School District and the Augusta University/University of Georgia Medical Partnership’s Athens Free Clinic, the health center will see patients during the school week for more than 20 hours each week.

“This is such a wonderful day for our community,” Dr. Shelley Nuss, dean of the medical partnership, said at the grand opening. “This center is already making a tremendous impact in the community we serve, and I want to thank everyone involved for all you do. It takes a village, so to everyone from the state, the community, the school system, thank you.”

CCSD Superintendent Robbie Hooker said he was honored that the center is located at one of the CCSD schools, and he looks forward to seeing the benefits play out within the community.

“This is going to help our families and the attendance of our students, and this is also going to make us a healthier community, and there’s nothing better than that,” he said.

Expanding a partnership

After the Athens Free Clinic and CCSD teamed up in 2021 to provide more than 1,650 COVID-19 vaccines to CCSD students, staff, families and employees, Dr. Suzanne Lester, the director of the Athens Free Clinic, and Amy Roark, CCSD’s director of nursing, applied for a UGA Presidential Interdisciplinary Seed Grant to fund a School Based Health Center.

“Having these services available on our school campus increases the amount of time that students spend in class learning and reduces the amount of time that parents and staff have to miss work,” said Roark. “CCSD recognizes that increasing access to quality health services positively impacts a child’s ability to stay healthy and succeed in school. We are grateful for our community partners who assist us on our path to increasing student success.”

Leveraging partnerships within UGA and the community—including individuals from the medical partnership, the UGA School of Law, the Mary Frances Early College of Education, the ASPIRE Clinic at the UGA College of Family and Consumer Sciences, and the Georgia Department of Health—the team was awarded the $94,000 grant to support a nine-month pilot period for the center.

Offering A Variety of Care

The center began providing care in early September to patients, who primarily include students, families and staff from Clarke Middle School and Alps Road Elementary School. More than 100 people already have received services such as preventive health care and care of acute and chronic health conditions, behavioral health counseling, and referrals to legal, social work and other support services.

Medical partnership/Athens Free Clinic physician faculty, registered nurses and medical students provide checkups and treat ailments along with CCSD nurses, the CCSD support team and school liaison, a UGA graduate assistant and UGA undergraduate volunteer clerical staff.

“Our campus has strived to provide access to health care to Athens-Clarke County since we opened our doors in 2009, and the Clarke Middle Health Center allows our resources to reach even more citizens,” Nuss said.

In addition to medical services, the ASPIRE Clinic from the UGA College of Family and Consumer Sciences offers mental health assessments and shorter-term individual and family counseling services. Staff from La Clínica in LaK’ech, a bilingual clinic through UGA’s Mary Frances Early College of Education, provide counseling and assessment to the Latinx population in both English and Spanish. Staff from the Community Health Law Partnership Clinic through the UGA School of Law also review requests for legal assistance and may refer internally to other clinics or to community resources.

The clinic’s location and variety of services will support CCSD students in the classroom as well.

“There is plenty of data to show that School Based Health Centers lead to improved health and academic outcomes,” said Lester. “Keeping children in school so that they can continue to learn instead of losing days to preventable and acute illnesses is the goal.”

Lester said she has two goals with the center—to serve the uninsured and underinsured citizens of Athens-Clarke County and to also spark the love for community-based health in the students.

“We have a unique opportunity as a medical school to try to address social and structural determinants of health and health equity,” said Lester. “I believe the short-term effect is having more health equity in Athens-Clarke County. The long-term effect is by allowing our medical students, our counseling students and our law students to interact in this setting with patients and families, means when they finish their training, they are more likely to go into primary care and community-based service, and they will also go on to address social and structural determinants of health and health equity in their own careers.”

Written by UGA’s Lindsey Derrick