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Kindness of strangers 

It was 1 a.m., cold, dark, and wet in the parking lot of the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Templeton. But that's when families and individuals began lining up in the rain for free dental, vision, and health screening services. By 6 a.m., every slot for dental care was filled.

A friend of mine (call him Frank) has CenCal Health insurance, yet no coverage for dental or vision. It was his first time visiting such a free health clinic, one that wouldn't exist but—to quote Tennessee Williams—for the kindness of strangers.

"I'd say there were 200 people there, waiting in pews after signing up at the intake table," Frank told me. "The setup was amazing: People were getting teeth pulled and root canals. There was a ton of medical equipment. I mean, this is a church, but it looked like a MASH unit!

"I sat with a family for four hours waiting for a vision test," he continued. "Between them, they worked three or four jobs, but they can't afford insurance. Their amazing little girl—she's about 8—is on the autism spectrum, so she has some special needs. The mom told me flat out, 'We often have to choose between rent, groceries, or health care.'"

Are you surprised by this family's story? Surprised that our government has looked the other way? Surprised that in 2016, 27,000 residents of our affluent San Luis Obispo County were uninsured?

Rupert Chowins isn't surprised. He's an optometrist and one of the doctors who volunteered his Sunday to work at the free clinic in Templeton. Along with Dr. Ahmad Nooristani, he founded the Noor Foundation, which provides free care to the uninsured in San Luis Obispo. Noor sees 500 to 600 patients each month and has provided more than 25,000 health care visits since opening in 2011.

"If you randomly talk to anyone at free clinics or at the Noor offices in SLO, you hear stories about the challenges our neighbors face that would make most of us wilt," Chowins told me. "The working poor take the brunt of the disparity between the rich and the poor, especially in a high-cost, low-wage area like the Central Coast."

The health care safety net is ripped apart for many in our community, especially those who work without benefits. Although the Affordable Care Act reduced the number of uninsured in the U.S. from 17 percent in 2013 to 10 percent in 2016, those gains are reversing because of recent attacks by Republicans.

Conservatives have not only done nothing to improve the act—they've also deliberately undercut it, slashing outreach and advertising during open enrollment and enacting a shorter enrollment period. Additionally, without a doubt, the number of uninsured—people almost literally left out in the cold—will increase this year because of the repeal of the individual mandate.

So, where do the uninsured go when they get sick? According to Abe Lincoln, director of the Noor Foundation, many, if not most, go to the emergency room. That's an expensive solution for all of us.

"Noor was founded to prevent people falling through the cracks," Lincoln told me. "We offer preventative, ongoing health care for dental and vision, and screening and treatment for things like diabetes, obesity, hypertension, type C hepatitis.

"Our mission is to create a community that is overall healthier, but we can't keep up with the growing demand. Right now, the wait for dental services is nine months."

Noor and the Seventh Day Adventist clinics represent feet-on-the-ground, community solutions to the rents in the health care safety net.

"We don't spend our energies debating the issue, we do something about it," said Lincoln, who describes Noor's patients as 60 to 65 percent women and 60 percent Hispanic. "We have 27-year-olds who have fallen off their parents' insurance, students, and almost-seniors, who don't yet have Medicare."

Maybe this is why so many more Americans suddenly want "Medicare for All."

The Seventh Day Adventists have held five clinics, each staffed by up to 60 volunteer providers and costing $9,000 in money raised by the church for the equipment and technical setup.

"The Noor Foundation template is impressive, but we're constrained by how much money we raise from grants and donations, and by how many volunteer doctors we can recruit," said Tom Nuckols, the foundation's board treasurer.

"Noor is such a good thing, but it's so much work," Chowins said. "It took the commitment of two or three people for 10 years to bring us to the service level we're at now. We keep reminding the community, that for every dollar donated, we provide $100 of free care to the needy—that's a tremendous return on investment.

"In fact," Chowins noted, "if 1,000 individuals donate $10 per month to Noor, and companies provide their own share of $100 per month, that would meet our ongoing costs."

With your help, the Noor Foundation and the Seventh Day Adventists bring grace, dignity, and essential health care to those who would otherwise fall through the safety net.

Still, who would have guessed that this far into the 21st century our county and our nation must rely year after year on "the kindness of strangers" to stitch a bare fabric of health care together?

To donate to the Noor Foundation, go to slonoorfoundation.org. Δ

Amy Hewes is actively involved in grassroots political action. Send comments through the editor at clanham@newtimesslo.com.

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