When physician Peter G. Shields began volunteering at La Clinica del Pueblo 20 years ago, the place had lots of heart but little space.
The clinic, open only Tuesday nights, occupied a single room on the third floor of an old red-brick building in Washington's Columbia Heights section. There was no heat, no elevator and no shortage of patients as the clinic provided free health care to the growing Latino community. Shields examined many a patient in the stairwell. Once, during a snowstorm when an anxious couple couldn't wait for an ambulance, one of his colleagues helped deliver a baby at the foot of the stairs.
"Basically, our philosophy has always been: If someone walks in the door, we have to figure out how to take care of them," said Shields, 45, professor of medicine and oncology at Georgetown University Medical Center and president of the clinic's board of directors.
Yesterday evening, Shields joined about 50 clinic volunteers, staff members, patients and neighbors in bidding farewell to their old home on Irving Street NW and saying hello to their new digs around the corner -- a three-story, $3.4 million clinic with 10 examination rooms, 11 mental health and HIV counseling rooms, a chapel and a children's playroom. It was a bittersweet departure, and before people danced to the four-man mariachi band in a room across the hall from where the clinic first opened, they cried, hugged and passed a box of tissues.
"This building made us who we are now," said Alicia Wilson, 29, the clinic's development director. Wilson stood up during the 4 p.m. farewell ceremony and tearfully reminded staff and volunteers in both Spanish and English of the humble roots of La Clinica, which was founded in 1983 to care for refugees fleeing Central America and has grown into one of only a handful of free, full-service community health clinics for Latino immigrants in the Washington area.
The clinic, which in recent years expanded to two of the Irving Street building's three floors, offers a range of services, from HIV testing, counseling and medical care to massage and physical therapy and treatment for diabetes, clinic officials said. A staff of 45 treats about 5,000 patients annually, the majority of whom are Spanish-speaking immigrants from Central or South America, many without insurance and living at or below the poverty level.
The move was 10 years in the making. La Clinica raised much of the funding needed to buy and renovate the building in the 2800 block of 15th Street NW with grants from the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development, Howard University Hospital and donations from foundations and individuals, including $5 and $10 gifts from clients.
After dancing and sipping plastic cups of the fruit drink tamarindo, clinic supporters marched to the new gray-brick building, bearing sticks of incense. Juan Romagoza carried something else: a Bible, and a vase from Peru given to him by a staff member who passed away. The move represented "the fulfillment of a dream the whole community had -- the patients, the volunteers, the staff, the board of directors," said Romagoza, 51, the clinic's executive director.
No one said they would miss dealing with their former headquarters' leaky roof or having to carry patients in wheelchairs up the stairs. Everyone said they looked forward to settling down at the 12,000-square-foot facility, which opens to patients on Tuesday. Yet, others said they would miss the old building, mainly for the memories.
"Climbing the stairs," Wilson said, "you feel the spirits of all those who struggled up them."