Vanessa Herndon, right, a resident of the Bellevue neighborhood in Southwest Washington, is examined by family nurse practitioner Lara Fife at the new Conway Health and Resource Center. “They don’t rush you in and out; they call to remind you of your appointment; they’re really concerned about people,” Herndon said of the clinic. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
Senior Regional Correspondent

Vanessa Herndon, 59, wasn’t sure what to expect Thursday when she became one of the first patients to take advantage of the spanking new, four-story health center in one of the District’s poorest, most neglected neighborhoods.

Herndon was thrilled that the clinic was within walking distance of her apartment, but she has had many bad experiences with doctors and hospitals. This time, she came away impressed and grateful.

“They don’t rush you in and out; they call to remind you of your appointment; they’re really concerned about people,” said Herndon, who went in for a worrisome cough that turned out to be merely a cold.

Other patients stressed the same. John Carrington, 45, who was there to sign up for health insurance under President Obama’s health-care law, said, “I’ve been to other hospitals and they look down on you, but here, everybody is friendly.”

Feeling respected is a novel experience for residents of this part of the Bellevue neighborhood in the District’s southernmost corner.

That’s one of several reasons why the opening of the $26 million Conway Health and Resource Center, built and operated by the nonprofit group Community of Hope, is a landmark event.

This is a locality so marginalized that people long for a pharmacy or supermarket to open. They’re jealous of the economic development they see three miles north in historic Anacostia.

The center adds an oasis of convenient, affordable health care in the middle of what one local expert called “a medical desert.” When it reaches full capacity, its doctors, dentists and nurse practitioners are expected to handle 40,000 visits a year.

The location is a major plus for the large number of Bellevue residents who can’t afford a car. An older clinic in Congress Heights, a half-mile away, isn’t big enough to handle demand, residents say, so it takes weeks to get an appointment.

Now young parents will find it easier to have their children immunized. Seniors can get help with arthritis and diabetes. Everybody will benefit from the clinic’s 11 dental chairs.

“Health outcomes are determined by access to care, and geography plays a role,” said Dionne Brown, a local resident and Community of Hope board member who works as a management consultant specializing in health policy.

“If you have to catch two buses and a subway to go see your doctor, you’re not going to go very often,” Brown said.

Also, the opening is a sign that the rest of the city hasn’t forsaken a neighborhood that has yet to regain all the businesses it lost after the crack epidemic of the 1980s.

“This health center is like a nucleus to us, to build up the trust again, that somebody cares and is attentive to our needs,” said Pat Owens, a longtime Bellevue resident. She is working part time for the clinic, visiting churches, schools and apartment complexes to spread the word that it’s open for business.

Finally, the center illustrates that long-term planning and public investment, helped by private philanthropy, can have a genuine, positive impact.

More than half the cost was covered by $15 million of District funds with roots in a task force created in 2006 by then-Mayor Tony Williams. The goal then was to figure out how best to spend $200 million that the city obtained as part of a historic legal settlement with the tobacco industry.

The District applied about half the money to build, expand or renovate community health centers in underserved areas. The Conway center is the 11th project to be completed under the program, with one left to go.

The remainder of the center’s cost was covered by $6 million from the federal government, under the health-care law, and $4.5 million from philanthropic donors.

The biggest private contribution, $1.75 million, came from billionaire financier Bill Conway and his wife, Joanne. Conway has pledged to donate at least half his wealth to the D.C. region.

The center is not a free clinic but seeks to keep prices within patients’ reach in a ward where more than a third of residents live at or below the poverty line. Many patients are on Medicaid or Medicare. For others, fees are set according to a sliding scale based on income.

Michele Ruffin, 60, said the center was charging her $750 for denture work, which would have cost her twice as much elsewhere.

Although Bellevue welcomes the health center, the shortage of other services continues to irritate.

Said Linda James, 57, who came in for a routine physical: “I appreciate the health center, but what this neighborhood really needs is a grocery store.”

For previous columns, go to