The Celebrity DessertFest and Dessert Auction fundraiser for the Health Partners Primary Care Center clinic is scheduled from 1 to 4 p.m. May 4 at the Greater Waldorf Jaycees Community Center. An article on April 17 included an incorrect date for the event. (Published 4/24/03)

On a recent rainy afternoon, the health clinic in Waldorf opened its doors for business-as-usual.

But there is one thing that is very unusual about business at Health Partners Primary Care Center: The clinic operates almost exclusively on the donated time and medical services of health care professionals and others in the Charles County community.

In its spacious waiting room -- part of what was once a segregated elementary school on Route 301 just north of Leonardtown Road -- people were seated on a recent afternoon, patiently listening for their names to be called. Muffled laughter seeped from a nearby playroom filled with the children of those waiting to be seen.

At the reception desk, Pauletta Feemster pushed through paperwork and greeted new arrivals with a smile. Clinic Director Toni Harris hurried in and out of a tiny office, helping direct prospective patients to interviews that determine their eligibility for services.

Health Partners is powered by volunteer doctors, dentists, nurses, pharmacists, workshop facilitators and support staff. The clinic also depends on the donated services of area laboratories and radiology centers, as well as Civista Medical Center -- which "has supported the project from Day One," said George Wathen, an internist and geriatrics physician who practices in Waldorf.

Wathen has been a volunteer since Health Partners started 12 years ago. "It's been a rewarding experience," he said as he arrived to see patients.

Chris Schmitthenner, a registered nurse and a five-year clinic veteran, was moving up and down a corridor, darting in and out of examination rooms. "I've always felt very strongly about health care access for everyone, and that's what keeps my motivation for coming here," she said. On the days that she spends at the clinic, Schmitthenner drives to Waldorf from her home in St. Mary's County.

Health Partners was founded by Sisters Michaeleen and Gladys Marie, who had come to Hughesville with the Order of the Holy Cross. Both had experience in hospital administration and saw a need in Charles County for wider access to health care for the underserved.

The clinic provides well over 5,000 different services for patients each year. Most of them are adults because children often qualify for various public health programs. In addition to meeting income eligibility guidelines, a patient must have no health insurance and no other medical assistance. In Maryland, there were approximately 560,000 non-elderly residents without health insurance in 2000, according to a recent report from the Association of Maryland Hospitals and Health Systems.

Sister Michaeleen once led a Cincinnati-based Catholic health care system. "I had 18 hospitals and 12 long-term care facilities in four different states," she said. Now she works on a much smaller scale, trying to keep the Health Partners' lifeline pumping with funds and human resources.

"If I die tomorrow," she said, "I don't want anything to happen to the clinic. We want people to continue to get help. There's no other group that's helping the people of Charles County who have no insurance and don't have money to get insurance, and have limited incomes."

Like its patients, the clinic has limited resources, she said.

Support through the "United Way has dropped off almost $10,000. Our general donations have fallen off," she said. "Our fundraisers have fallen off. Even when we ask our patients if they can give a couple of dollars -- that has dropped off. So we have to ensure the viability and financial liability of the clinic."

Sister Michaeleen speculates that a number of causes have led to the drop in financial donations -- the impact of the war in Iraq, public skepticism about charitable organizations and a general increase in economic hardships.

She and Sister Gladys Marie have begun planning to form a foundation that would be dedicated to providing financial continuity for the clinic.

Some more immediate financial planning is focused on the clinic's upcoming fundraiser -- the fifth annual Celebrity DessertFest and Dessert Auction from 1 to 4 p.m. May 5 at the Greater Waldorf Jaycees Community Center next door.

"The county commissioners usually come, people from the local bank and hopefully the state reps, law enforcement and other state officials will participate and be there," Sister Michaeleen said. "It's a lot of fun."

Last year, it took about $84,700 to run the clinic, "and that's with a volunteer staff and drug companies donating medicines," said Harris, who is on constant lookout for funding sources. She has tapped into a variety of supporters, such as SMECO, Blue Cross Blue Shield and even the Baltimore Ravens National Football League franchise, which made a donation through its Community Quarterback Award.

"We just got the check, a thousand dollars. I nominated one of my volunteers, Swynice Hawkins, and she won one of the local finalist awards," Harris said.

Hawkins, who handles patient financial screenings and scheduling, said, "I've been involved with the clinic even before it got started, and I want to see it succeed. Whenever they ask me to do something, I'll do it." In her regular job, Hawkins is vice president of Southern Maryland Tri-County Community Action Committee Inc., a nonprofit social services coordinating agency in Hughesville.

Harris said the business and population boom in Charles County has added to the clinic's business.

"Charles County is an area that's growing," she said, "but it's growing in retail, sales and service -- which either do not offer health care insurance or offer wages that are too low for people to purchase health insurance."

Health Partners also offers classes geared to professionals and the public on a variety of health and family issues, including diabetes, nutrition, money management, disaster relief and more. For example, volunteer instructor Sandra Womack, an educator from the University of Maryland extension office in La Plata, recently presented a program called "Eating Out, Food and Fitness."

Carol Wright, a registered nurse and certified diabetes educator, also volunteers in classes at the clinic.

"In 1999, Maryland spent over $3 billion on diabetes-related costs alone," Wright said. "That cost is related to hospitalizations, medicines, office treatments, loss of productivity on jobs, and early mortality. Things that just shouldn't happen if people learned how to take care of themselves," Wright said.

As she staffed a reception desk at the clinic, Sister Michaeleen described the work and challenges of Health Partners, the grace and mercy of its volunteer staff and its lone paid employee, Harris. The sister is wearing her uniform-of-the-day, but not the black-and-white habit traditionally associated with nuns.

Anyone yearning to see that can borrow a video copy of "Sister Act" at the local library, Sister Michaeleen said. Besides, she divulged with a chuckle, when she wore the starched white cap of her habit, "my ears hurt." Back in those days, she said, "Every Sister had sores on her ears, constantly, because the cap fell right on your ears. So every night, I'd say, 'Lord, if I didn't do anything else today, I offer you my sore ears.' "

So these days, Sister Michaeleen lets her silver hair show and wears a pair of jeans, a sweatshirt and sneakers. It's an outfit, she said, that fits with her duties -- later, she might have to clean a few toilets.

Besides, she explained, what really identifies her is the bold wooden cross she wears around her neck. "This, I've worn for the last 14 years. Everybody in Charles County knows me by this cross," she said.

Back in the waiting area, one woman with a reddish and over-rubbed nose complained about her sinus infection, while waiting for the nurse to call her name. She said she was out of work and that her husband works for a home improvement company that is too small to offer health insurance.

She sighed and wiped her puffy eyes. "This is the only clinic down here in Charles County that I can go to. Without this, I'd have to go to the hospital and I can't afford hospital bills."

Clinic Director Toni Harris, left, talks with Ginny Wilson, a volunteer nurse at Health Partners Primary Care Center.