It’s a long-standing Internal Revenue Service rule: when a non-profit disbands, any money it may still have in its coffers must be distributed to other non-profits, albeit non-profits of the dissolvers’ choice.
The phasing out of the 41-year-old AdventHealth Palm Coast Auxiliary is the Flagler Free Clinic’s fortune.
The Auxiliary announced its disbandment Friday minutes before gifting the Free Clinic a $75,000, check, “the biggest donation we’ve ever received by far,” says Terri Belletto, the first executive director of the Free Clinic, one of Flagler County’s noblest and most essential non-profits.
It is the creation of two local, departed legends: Faith Coleman, the nurse practitioner, and Dr. John Canakaris, the family physician who had founded Bunnell’s very first clinic in 1950, when Palm Coast was not yet an embryonic draft in ITT’s Manhattan closets. Coleman’s struggles with cancer made her realize that Flagler County had a very large segment of people uninsured and without access to affordable care. Canakaris was always looking for ways to reach the poor. Coleman and Canakaris opened the Free Clinic in February 2005, just as Flagler’s housing bubble was cresting and further masking the immense needs for affordable care beyond the glitter.
Then the bubble burst. The Flagler County Free Clinic at 700 East Moody Blvd. in Bunnell, a block from Canakaris Avenue, endured. (Canakaris died in 2012, Coleman died of cancer in 2014.) It had opened with eight volunteers and eight patients.
Today, the clinic has four paid staff members and about 75 volunteers. The clinic provides roughly $2 million worth of services a year, its reach now extending to Volusia County.
Belletto, the clinic’s first executive director, says the clinic expand services in 2014, “because there was such a great need in Flagler County for people who are uninsured and just don’t have access to good health care.” Still.
Friday evening the volunteers and staff of both the clinic and the auxiliary gathered at the clinic’s offices to celebrate the end of an unforgiving Covid year, their shared passion for volunteerism, and of course that check.
A whirlwind of emotions coursed throughout the room that night. The donation signified bracing new opportunities for the clinic, but also the end of the auxiliary. “It’s been a passion of mine for 15 years, and we’re bringing it to a close,” said a dewy-eyed Patty Mercer, the member at large of the volunteer auxiliary board. “It’s time to move in from a corporate entity, which means we’re a 501-c-3 organization, and we’re now going to dissolve that corporate entity and become a volunteer organization that is going to be managed by AdventHealth Palm Coast,” the local hospital tied to the national network.
“This is for the future medical needs of the clinic, and the residents of our communities,” said Tom Sisti, president of the auxiliary. Echoing the sentiments of the volunteers of the Advent Health Palm Coast auxiliary, he said “this clinic can use this donation to help meet its mission to provide quality medical care to the uninsured and economically challenged citizens of Flagler and Volusia County.”
“What is important for people to understand,” Belletto said, “is that we don’t have any billing methods. We operate from private sector donations, events, fundraising events which of course, we couldn’t have at all last year, grants and gifts like this. So it’s really huge.”
Michaelyn Milidantry, treasurer of the board at the Free Clinic, said the gift is timely, after Covid’s challenges. “Financially,” she aid, “it really helps us out a lot, I mean with Covid, you know, we have several, four or five events that would donate, but with Covid you couldn’t do that. This donation from the auxiliary is going to make such a difference for our community.”
The Auxiliary board had $225,000 to disburse. Its members discussed how to award the sums for maximum community impact. “I’m really proud that we chose this as one of our benefactors of our donation,” Mercer said of the clinic. The auxiliary also made large donations to the Advent Health Palm Coast Cancer center, specifically towards breast cancer care, and the Flagler County Education Foundation, the non-profit arm of the Flagler County School district, which also devotes much of its donations and scholarships to the needy.
“This was something that the hospital has been pushing for for a couple of years,” says Joyce Novak, the volunteer manager of the hospital’s gift shop, explaining the auxiliary’s disbanding. “They wanted our hospital to be in line with all of the other Advent Health facilities. We were one of the only ones that were not under the supervision of a state manager.” Novak said she was curious to see how the auxiliary’s volunteers have been absorbed. “There won’t be those funds anymore which is sad,” she said. “So hopefully we’ve given a long lasting donation that our name is gonna stay out there.”
For Helene Kelly, the auxiliary had been “an awfully big part of my life,” she said. She’d been volunteering at the hospital through the auxiliary for almost 18 years. “I guess I’m a little angry. I think I’m angry, because I’ve seen so much and we’ve done so much, and it just feels like something’s been taken away.” While upset the auxiliary has come to an end, Kelly is still glad they were able to make such an impactful donation to the free clinic and is considering joining its volunteer force. “It’s just so wonderful to help people. And frankly, I didn’t know that much about it [the Free Clinic]. And I would love to get out on the road and shout it to people.”
Volunteers keep the clinic running, providing accounting services, fundraising, marketing, care of course, helping people with social service issues, checking patients in and out, registering them. “You think of any normal business, and I promise you that we have someone, multiple people, that keep this clinic running,” Belletto said. “We’re just not the little clinic anymore that saw patients twice a month. We see patients by appointment almost every day of the week. And we’ve formed a medical home for our patients, so they see the same provider, they don’t have to jump around, they have regular appointments, and we are proud to say we’re just like a regular doctor’s office, we just don’t charge.”
“This is the problem of healthcare in our country that people don’t see. And I talk to people all day, every day who say, ‘I didn’t know you were here.’ Well if you don’t need us, you don’t think about us,” says Belleto.
The Free Clinic doesn’t have a marketing budget, a social media wiz, or the sort of glitz that appeals to people who like the rich, famous and gilded. Its mission is to care for people who tend to be more invisible to society at large. This underpublicized state caused Peggy Hengeveld, board president of the Free Clinic, to underscore community connectivity. “It’s all about talking about the clinic, talking about what we do, inviting people to tour the clinic and see the clinic,” she said, “because as any nonprofit, we need to continue to grow our donor base, because without our donors, we would not survive either, as Terri said, we can’t live without our volunteers, well we can’t live without our donors either.”