Hayhurst didn't blink when the Bells asked him, three years ago, to make his gymnasium available for clinic nights, which are now scheduled twice a month. "They'd like to have their own place, and that will come," he says. "But right now we're just excited to be a part of it, and we just thank God for the opportunity."
In getting the ECHO clinic up and running, they were able to draw from the lessons learned by other charitable clinics around the nation, including the nearby "Little Portion Hermitage" in Berryville, Ark. There, a group of Catholic Brothers and Sisters of Charity has operated a charitable clinic for 15 years. Smaller than the ECHO clinic, "Little Portion" nonetheless serves hundreds of patients each year -- everything from simple blood pressure monitoring to physician's exams. They have found the need for their services increasing every year, especially among the growing Hispanic population.
"They are a welcome community, but growing in numbers by leaps and bounds," said John Michael Talbot, general minister for Little Portion. "And a lot of them are Catholic, and looked to us to reach out and help them."
The services provided are limited to basic medical care. "We're able to do basic visits for colds and the flu and so on," he explains. "We aren't able to do MRIs or surgeries or anything like that, but we are able to get the initial visits taken care of, and to refer them to good people who can follow up with them."
Little Portion, like ECHO, stays busy from the moment it opens its doors on a until it closes, and Talbot doesn't expect demand to slow at all. "There are far more people in need than we are able to reach," he notes.
There are, in fact, hundreds of "free" or "charitable" clinics in the U.S. Some are very small and operate infrequently; others have spacious buildings and an ambitious schedule. All, however, depend heavily upon the generosity of volunteers -- and donors. The National Association of Free Clinics, which helps guide communities to develop and operate charitable clinics, estimates that over $300 million per year is raised in private funds for those clinics nationwide. That helps to provide care for approximately 3.5 million uninsured and underinsured patients.
"We are seeing the need growing. In fact, in the last six months, we've seen the lines at some clinics increasing 25 percent to 30 percent, given this economy," said Nicole Lamoureux, executive director of the NAFC. "The people who volunteer at free clinics see a need, and instead of waiting for a solution, we're working on the problem right now."
The NAFC calculates that their work adds up to about $3 billion in free health care services.
And that isn't counting all of the free labor provided by tens of thousands of volunteers in communities nationwide.
Often, that volunteer labor force is provided by local church communities. Suzie, a Methodist, says ECHO has been blessed by the willingness of dozens of different church leaders to ask their congregations to put their faith into action at ECHO. "That's what we're called to do, really, as Christians," she says, emphatically, "We're supposed to help each other, and love each other."