A Vision of Health

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Faith, hard work and Regis support bring caring and wellness to a Denver community. 

A few years after graduating from Regis University, as he was settling into a career, Tepeyac Community Health Center Chief Executive Jim Garcia went searching for a church that would put him to work serving the community. He found that within the tan brick walls of Our Lady of Guadalupe church in northwest Denver. He also found something he hadn’t realized he was looking for: a calling.

That discovery is the reason that, for more than two decades, low-income, uninsured Denver residents have had a clinic they can count on for dependable, accessible, affordable and culturally sensitive health care.

Clinica Tepeyac — now called Tepeyac Community Health Center — is an idea conceived by a concerned Catholic congregation, brought to life by Jim Garcia’s caring, smarts and tenacity and nurtured by a long and productive partnership with Regis University. That partnership has shepherded the clinic from its beginning as an idea discussed in a parish council meeting, to the first patient seen in a converted 800-square-foot house in 1995, and then to its current location in a struggling neighborhood a few blocks north of where Interstates 70 and 25 converge.

Now, Tepeyac is planning an ambitious expansion in services and square feet, and in mission. In addition to treating and preventing illness, clinic leaders now envision a holistic approach that fosters wellness through secure housing and fresh food. And the clinic’s Regis connection is once again playing a role in making that happen.

When 17-year-old Jim Garcia came to Regis, he became the first of the 11 kids in his family to leave his home state of New Mexico to attend college. He was an English major who hadn’t settled on a career direction. But his time at Regis helped make it clear what he didn’t want to do. Through his involvement in campus ministry, Garcia spent weekends volunteering at St. Anthony Hospital, a trauma center then just north of Colfax Avenue in west Denver. It was, Garcia recalled, an eye-opening experience. “I realized I was not suited for the medical profession. But it did give me an orientation toward health care.”

After graduation, Garcia taught English in an underserved middle school, then counseled troubled youth before going to work for former Colorado Democratic Sen. Tim Wirth. When he found his way to Denver’s Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, its location at 36th Avenue and Kalamath Street was then a neighborhood of immigrants and working class, mostly Latinx, residents living in small, aging homes.

When Garcia joined the historic congregation, he planned to participate in community service, but a persistent nun had other ideas. She pestered Garcia to run for parish council and kept after him until he agreed. He eventually ran, and, to his surprise, he won a council seat. At Garcia’s first council meeting, the parish priest laid out the congregation’s priorities for serving the community, and there was no question about what would top the list: improving access to health care. “He said, ‘we have people coming by asking for help with that almost every day.”

As the discussion turned to ways to improve community health, the priest mentioned that the congregation owned a tiny, rundown house across the street. Turning that little house into a clinic was an improbable, an almost impossible notion for a small congregation with few resources. But Garcia took on the project.

First, the congregation had to prove on paper what everyone in the neighborhood knew: that a clinic was needed.

That’s when Garcia’s Regis connection started paying off.

As a student, Garcia had known the Rev. Vincent O’Flaherty, S.J., who was the Regis rector. But O’Flaherty had recently added another entry to his long resume: First director of Romero House, the University’s community of undergraduate students who dedicate an academic year to a simple, spiritual life of service. Documenting the neighborhood’s need for health care became one of Romero House’s first projects.

At the time, Lauri Pramuk was a Regis senior and a member of the first class of Romero House students. That inaugural class’s assignment was to survey the residents around Our Lady of Guadalupe, Pramuk said. “We had a list of questions, and we went door to door asking what people’s health care needs were. We met so many people and learned about their lives.”

The surveys uncovered societal differences as well as medical needs. Many of the residents had heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes, Pramuk recalled. And most could not get treatment for those conditions. Nor did they have any place to turn for help with domestic abuse, substance abuse or mental health issues.

The experience was about serving others, but Pramuk benefited, too. Throughout her studies at Regis, she struggled to reconcile her science-loving side, which had guided her toward a biology major, with the part of her that loved the humanities and had led her to a second major, English, with an eye toward becoming an English professor.

Over those weeks talking with residents of northwest Denver, Pramuk discovered that it was possible to marry her two interests. “I thought, ‘Wow, there’s a whole different side of medicine that brings in the humanities-degree side,’” she said. “That whole experience changed my life,” and set her on a course to become a pediatrician and to address the social and cultural needs of her patients.

For Garcia, the data compiled from those surveys “confirmed what we already knew: The need for health care among the community was great.” Getting the means to meet that need — proved difficult. “Initially, I heard a lot of, ‘That’s a nice idea, Jim, but it ain’t gonna happen.’”

“Initially, I heard a lot of, ‘That’s a nice idea, Jim, but it ain’t gonna happen.”

Garcia’s search for a hospital partner that would work with clinic doctors and, when necessary, treat its sickest patients, initially turned up a lot of good wishes, but little else. “I got a lot of pats on the back, and ‘good luck.’” By the time he explained the clinic concept to Sister Mariana Bauder, chief executive of Denver’s St. Joseph Hospital, Garcia was fairly discouraged. But, Garcia recalled, “She looked at me and said, ‘whatever you need, we’ll help you with,’” and began a partnership that continues today.

Then, another Regis alumnus stepped in to help. Don Gallegos, longtime King Soopers chief executive, provided $10,000 to refurbish the parish’s house on Kalamath. With that financial head start, members of the Our Lady of Guadalupe congregation provided much of the manual labor, swinging hammers and running saws on weekends. It took a year, but they transformed the house into a two-room clinic.

After all that, choosing a name for the clinic name was easy. According to Catholic tradition, in December 1531, the Virgin Mary appeared to a peasant named Juan Diego on a hill outside Mexico City, instructing him to build a church there. Now, Mexico City’s Basilica de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe (Our Lady of Guadalupe) is the most frequently visited Catholic shrine in the world. And Our Lady of Guadalupe is a beloved figure, particularly among Latinx Catholics and culture. The name of that hill: Tepeyac.

By April 1995, the dilapidated old house had been transformed into a clinic, and opened its doors, with Garcia at the helm, to uninsured and medically underserved patients. That year, some 14 percent of Colorado’s residents under age 65 lacked health insurance, according to an Urban Institute study. It’s no surprise that within five years, the clinic had outgrown its renovated bungalow.

Today, the clinic, which is no longer connected to the Our Lady of Guadalupe congregation, sits within Globeville and Elyria-Swansea, neighborhoods that gentrification forgot. Once home to immigrants from Eastern Europe who worked in nearby mining and smelting companies, the neighborhoods make up the nation’s most polluted zip code.

While the 2009 Affordable Care Act has expanded access to health care for many who lacked insurance, Denver is still home to an estimated 90,000 low-income people who aren’t consistently seen by a health-care provider. By the clinic’s own estimates, nearly 80 percent of its patients lack insurance of any type, and more than 90 percent are classified as low-income.

For Gina Millan, the trouble getting health care started after she left her job in 2011. But her connections and work as an activist meant she knew where to go. “I knew about Clinica from my work sharing resources with the community,” she said, through an interpreter.

She’s been a patient ever since. And with her history of activism — she once worked for the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition and now hosts a radio show, Mujeres de Color — Millan wasn’t shy about pointing out ways for improvement. In February, Millan landed a spot on the Tepeyac board with the goal of helping the clinic retain medical staff, most of whom could earn higher salaries elsewhere, and to improve services for the LGBTQ community. Millan is deeply proud to be on the board. If Tepeyac didn’t exist to care for people who lack insurance or money “more people would die,” she said.

Millan’s fellow board members include Regis faculty: Samit Shah, Ph. D., dean of Regis’ School of Pharmacy, and Linda Osterlund, Ph.D., dean of Rueckert-Hartman College for Health Professions.

When Shah learned about Tepeyac, shortly after coming to Regis, “I was awestruck by the incredible work they are doing,” he said. “It aligns perfectly with our mission at Regis.”

Part of that mission now is to expand Tepeyac’s work beyond treating and preventing illness to provide important components of good health — like stable, affordable housing and fresh food in the Globeville and Elyrea-Swansea neighborhoods, which are food deserts. The expansion plans include adding a pharmacy to Tepeyac’s services. Shah is collaborating with clinic leaders so that when that pharmacy opens, Regis faculty members will take their turns behind the counter.

The clinic is on its way to raising the $13 million needed to open new services in a new location. With a pharmacy, housing, a grocery store, imaging, more patient examination rooms and dental suites, the new clinic would be a major step up from a tiny house converted into an 800-square-foot clinic. The clinic also has a new name: Tepeyac Community Health Center. The change reflects how Tepeyac isn’t just a place that treats illness but has grown to offer a full spectrum of services including, medical, dental, behavioral health and pharmacy, Garcia said.

Altogether, it’s far more than Jim Garcia could have imagined when that nun goaded him into taking a spot on a parish council. “It’s been a humbling experience,” he said. “In the beginning, I never had any idea we would even get the project off the ground.”

A Vision for More Comprehensive Care, and More of It

Tepeyac Community Health Center leaders hope to raise half the $13 million needed for a new facility at 48th Avenue and Race Street. The new site, which Tepeyac plans to open in early 2023, would almost quadruple the facility’s size to 24,500 square feet, and increase the annual patient visit capacity to 37,000.

The new facility would include, under one roof:

  • Retail space offering groceries and fresh food;
  • Comprehensive imaging services;
  • Pharmacy services;
  • Comprehensive dental care;
  • Behavioral health care, including treatment for children;
  • 150 units of affordable housing;
  • Play areas in a neighborhood that lacks them.

To contribute to the Tepeyac Community Health Center fund, visit www.tepeyachealth.org/our-future-location.