Eureka Springs's Free Clinic Runs on Kindness

A guiding philosophy for ECHO is an abiding respect for those who come for help. Volunteers are reminded before each clinic begins to be compassionate. Suzie has enlisted a small corps of volunteers called "shepherds" to help patients through each step of the process: registration, triage, doctor's office, pharmacy. Since the waits can be long -- the most recent clinic treated 57 patients in one evening -- patients are seated with their Shepherds at large dining tables, and dinner is served -- to everyone.

"We're very blessed here," notes Grace Gladden, who oversees "Hospitality" for the ECHO clinic. She says local churches have a friendly competition going to see who can provide the best homemade dishes -- including an impressive array of pies and cakes -- on clinic nights. "I think we have a lot of people here that want to help each other."

Jim Swolley is convinced of that. A retired tool-and-dye machinist, Swolley believes he owes his life to the ECHO clinic. When he was initially afflicted with bipolar disease several years ago, he had good health insurance and, with treatment, recovered. But when the disease struck him hard again two years ago, he and his wife, Oleta, were living on Social Security income and they had no insurance. Oleta convinced Jim to see Dan, at the ECHO clinic and that, she says, has made all the difference.

"As soon as you come in and you sign a list, you're assigned a Shepherd," says Oleta. "What a wonderful name – a Shepherd – to guide you through the whole process with such love. You never feel lost," she explains, reaching for Jim's hand.

"This was as big a difference as day and night," Jim adds. "To know there was something out there, that you could reach out and they stopped and listened."

Dan and the ECHO team were able to arrange for him to get free medication, as well, donated by a pharmaceutical company.

Faith Drives Volunteers to Donate Time

What impresses Jim Swolley the most, however, is the way in which the entire ECHO team treats him during his visits. "It's the most heartwarming feeling to feel the love when you walk in the door. It's just that nice."

Oleta agrees. "I don't know that I have ever seen a place where you find a unity of spirit like they have here."

Bell believes many more communities could do what ECHO is doing, if they put their heart and soul into it.

"I think there's a whole untapped resource that we all have," he says, growing philosophical. He has been delighted by the willingness, even enthusiasm, of very busy people to carve out time to serve at ECHO, for no compensation other than a thank-you.

"You know, that's not what our western civilization thinks our lives are about," Dan says with a wry smile. "Our Western civilization thinks it's about us, being first, making money, being successful. But we forget, that's not what Jesus came to show us."

Dan and Suzie are devout Christians who say their faith was the force that spurred them to start ECHO, and believe it offers a lesson: that giving really can bring joy, that sacrificing time and talent to help neighbors in need can weave communities together in an extraordinary way.

Still, they don't talk about faith much on nights when there is a clinics; there's no time and the patients are an eclectic mix, representing many different faiths, many of no particular faith, and more than a few who don't want to discuss faith that night -- just their health.

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