By Sara Nichols

As Executive Director at Open Arms Free Clinic in Elkhorn, I oversee licensed medical volunteers who provide essential health care to uninsured individuals in Walworth County who are at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

I’m proud of the work my colleagues and I do, filling a critical need for accessible health care for those who have few options. Our free clinic opened only seven years ago when there were 13,000 Walworth County residents who didn’t have health insurance and the per capita household income was just over $23,000 annually.

After only one year, we found our average patient was a 43-year-old male with chronic conditions that limited their ability to work full time. These men were on the Medicaid waiting list for over two years before they had found us.

Today, after we have enrolled and treated close to 3,000 patients, the need continues as there are still approximately 8,000 county residents who are uninsured and 40 percent of households struggle to afford basic needs. Our average patient is now a 50-year-old female with chronic conditions, and more than half of such patients have a history of trauma relating to rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner.

Our clinic is a critical safety net for thousands of individuals in need within our county. However, as a volunteer-driven, donor-supported organization, we have limitations and depend on leveraging our services in collaboration with other organizations.  One critical partner  – New Beginnings APFV – offers counseling, advocacy and support for victims of abuse.

More than 1 in 3 women have experienced domestic violence or intimate partner violence. Like poverty in our county, the average resident cannot see it. Victims are hidden. Yet, every day we encounter these women barely hanging on seeking medical services at our clinic.  We face the frustration of not being able to help a victim escape their abuser because we don’t have a shelter in our county.

The free clinic was started with a mission to better understand and serve with compassion the health and wellness needs of low-income Walworth County residents. With space, equipment and the volunteers willing to serve, we have been able to open our doors and care for our neighbors in need.

We have had the generous partners like Aurora, Mercy and Dean health systems give us necessary equipment. We have had generous donors help us purchase the necessary space in Elkhorn, the center of our county.  And our volunteers have donated more than 60,000 hours, cumulatively, to give our patients the dignity and respect they deserve on their journey toward a healthy life.

New Beginnings APFV has had the good fortune to serve the county’s residents for more than 40 years. On behalf of the patients, volunteers, and staff at Open Arms Free Clinic, we have high hopes that New Beginnings APFV will be able to open a shelter for women and children in 2020.

Having a shelter within close proximity to the free clinic is equally important. For individuals who understand the social determinants of health, we know that social isolation, access to medical assistance and medications, and transportation significantly effects overall health.

Open Arms Free Clinic provides primary medical, dental, vision, behavioral health, lab and medications at no cost for qualifying patients. A woman staying at a safe, supportive shelter in downtown Elkhorn would be able to access the free clinic via the ride-share transportation program for approximately $5 round-trip from the shelter to the clinic. We need the shelter close to the clinic for the health and wellness of our most vulnerable neighbors in need – women and children who have experienced violence and trauma.

Those blocking access to a viable shelter building because of personal financial interests are short sighted. The former medical building on Church Street is not a historical building. It is not even that attractive, and yet city council allowed that site to be developed years ago to serve the community.

 Individual investors look at individual gains and losses.  Community investors seek to make a positive impact on generations. Breaking the cycle of abuse needs community investors. The children in abusive households need community investors.

With the proposed gift from Aurora Advocate Health, the building can be brought back to life and serve the community once again – for generations to have positive outcomes.

When it comes to the health of women and families in Walworth County, we should be working to protect and strengthen community support, not give in to bullies that take it away.

New Beginnings APFV is a trusted community partner and I urge our elected leaders to hear from those of us who work to provide care to patients every day that we need to protect and enhance these important points of access to safety and health care for all those in need.

Elkhorn Common Council members, I urge you to please vote “yes” on the permit to allow New Beginnings APFV to renovate a former medical building at 20 N. Church St., Elkhorn, for a support center and domestic violence shelter.


Sara Nichols, MPH

Parent, Executive Director and advocate

* See “Writers support shelter location” in the Letter section under the Opinion tab of this website for more.


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