The Berkeley Free Clinic Celebrates its 50 Year Anniversary

With the 2020 presidential race underway, health care has become a primary issue of concern for Americans. For some, the privilege of health care has never been absent from their lives.  But for others, health care is almost completely out of grasp. Especially in Berkeley, certain populations receive subpar health care or no care at all depending on their insurance, financial status, and even gender or sexual orientation. In a city where equity is so valued, it only seems fair to hold our health care to the same high standards.

Luckily, Berkeley residents have been able to turn to the Berkeley Free Clinic (BFC) since 1969, as it celebrated its 50th anniversary on August 24. The BFC is an organization located at 2339 Durant Avenue that is dedicated to providing “health care for people, not profit,” their slogan reads.

As the name implies, all services are free of charge, as the clinic is funded by both government grants and individual donors. This makes it accessible and affordable for all Berkeley residents. All services are provided by volunteers that are highly trained in their field, many of whom work in the health care industry for their nine-to-five job as well. For fifty years, the BFC has been working to demystify health care and make it accessible to all, especially to those who cannot receive it elsewhere.

The BFC supplies an extensive list of services including acute medical care, dental services, peer counseling, eyeglasses and vision screenings, and testing for tuberculosis, sexually transmitted infections, and hepatitis. Even through the organization provides these services for everyone over the age of 18 (age of consent for STI testing) Chairman of the Board Rohen Sukkawala said, “The patient population is those who essentially can’t get services elsewhere.” This includes people who may not have the financial means to buy insurance. Others may be members of the transgender community who may not receive adequate health care from a more traditional medical establishment. Historically, people who identify as transgender have had harder times accessing the best health care. Sukkawala said, “The services are really based upon that group of people,” with regards to people who are either marginalized, or do not have the resources necessary to receive health care.

The BFC not only provides services to those who might not otherwise receive them, but it administers these services in a unique and preventative way. While most traditional medical institutions utilize professionals in a hierarchical way, BFC believes that medical knowledge should not be limited to an elite few.

Sukkawala highlighted a possible downside to the current health care system when he said, “Health care is often seen as this very complex topic that only a few people get to understand, and the rest of the world is at the mercy of those few people.” But the BFC strives to help those in need and pass on their knowledge so that next time they are able to learn and help themselves, thus minimizing the health problems in the community.

In addition to using a new perspective on administering health care, the BFC also takes proactive steps to provide care for the marginalized and less privileged citizens in the community. As volunteer Jim Kirkpatrick explained, “In the LGBT+ community, many folks do not feel respected in traditional health care settings.” Because of this, BFC has devoted days specifically to helping those in need. For example, on Fridays from 12 to 2:30 PM, there is peer counseling specifically for women and transgender people. This helps address the issue by actively giving resources to people who could not easily  get it elsewhere.

BFC offers many resources and services that cannot be found anywhere else in the city free of charge. They emphasize making health care accessible to all who need it, as they believe it is a human right, not a privilege. They do this in a unique and helpful way by focusing on educating their clients on what medical attention they are receiving.

Sukkawala says the BFC is an extremely important and successful part of the community, and when asked if this establishment was working, he said, “It’s very easy for someone to say the healthcare system is not fair … but to have an organization that’s actually doing, it is important to have, especially a structure that has lasted for 50 years, it shows that this is not some new idea, it isn’t a startup, it is something that works.”

Since the organization relies on the help from various  volunteers, it is important that young people are aware of this and are able to carry on the responsibility of working at the BFC. If you are 18 or older and would like to get involved, there are orientations and opportunities to shadow the medical staff available on their website.

Getting involved is not only a unique opportunity to gain medical experience, but it can make a significant impact in the Berkeley community as a whole.

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