Cindy Schmeltz, medical director of La Comunidad Hispana, recalled the day a homeless woman with diabetes walked into the Kennett Square agency, desperate for help.
"She was sleeping on somebody's floor. She was out of insulin, so her diabetes was out of control," Schmeltz said.
The woman also was depressed, not only over her chronic illness but also the transience of her life. At that moment, Schmeltz said, she realized that "it didn't matter that I was giving her insulin if she didn't have anywhere to store it, if she didn't have food in her belly, if she didn't know where to sleep that night."
Delivering bilingual health care and social services to 5,500 mostly low-income residents of southern Chester County annually, LCH tends to basic human needs, with no concern about who can or cannot pay. Its staff quickly found a home for the woman, gave her emergency medical treatment, and counseled her.
"She's coming here now on a regular basis," Schmeltz said. "Sometimes, patients just have life stuff happen to them."
Dealing with "life stuff" has been the nonprofit LCH's mission since its founding in 1973 by local church members and other compassionate Kennett Square-area residents who wanted to help the mushroom industry workers in their midst.
Funded in part by government grants, in part by private donations, LCH ministers to a clientele that is 90 percent Hispanic or Latino, and 74 percent uninsured. Fifty percent live below the federal poverty level. Billing is on a sliding scale based on household income. No one is turned away.
LCH's large, bright, modern clinic bustles with men, women, and children, many speaking Spanish. A staff of 40 provides primary care (physicals, immunizations, prescription medicines), treatment for minor injuries and chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, mental health counseling, and breast cancer screening.
A pediatric clinic that opened last winter has the caregivers as excited as the patients, Schmeltz said. Before then, "the doctors here took care of the mom and got her through the pregnancy safely, but they didn't get to see the baby or care for mother and infant. Now, mom and baby can come here, all under one roof."
(Parents can take sick children to LCH from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, and 8 a.m. to noon Fridays, and to an on-call provider at other times.)
"I had a family where a mom and her child were living out of their car," said Schmeltz, a nurse-practitioner for 19 years. "They were brought to my attention by a schoolteacher who noticed that the child, although clean, was wearing the same things every day and looked rough around the edges.
"This is what happens in real life," she said. "There but for the grace of God go you or I. We could lose our jobs, our homes. Everything could fall down around us. . . . Here, we try to provide for those changes."
LCH's pediatric services include childhood disease immunizations, take-home nebulizer machines for asthmatic children, and, beginning this fall, a dental varnish program to prevent "bottle mouth," caused by bedtime feeding of sugary beverages that can decay baby teeth.
LCH's infant-to-elderly health care in Kennett Square - and at a new satellite clinic in Oxford - is vital to vulnerable families, Schmeltz said. "You feel like you make a difference in someone's life. It may seem small, but it's not small to them."
Cristina Gonzalez, the front office manager, moved with her family from Mexico to Kennett Square in 1997. LCH, she said, was their support system.
"I got my shots for school here," Gonzalez said. "Counselors here helped us get medical insurance and purchase our first home in Kennett Square. Now, I want to help families who are just like my own."
Margarita Garay Zarco, director of human resources, education and workforce development, said that when she arrived in this country from Mexico, "I felt, 'What am I doing here?' Language was the first barrier. I never thought, coming from another country, that they would need my language."
To Zarco's surprise, Kennett Consolidated High School's significant population of Hispanic students needed her to teach them math in Spanish. Then, LCH hired her to instruct General Educational Development (GED) courses in Spanish.
Zarco also teaches English as a Second Language and U.S. citizenship courses, and helps her LCH clients find local jobs in landscaping, housekeeping, hospitals, offices, and restaurants, and in the mushroom industry as packers, cashiers, drivers and supervisors.
"We're a social service agency and a health clinic, not a community center," she said. "We don't have a gym or after-school programs. But some people come here almost every day and say, 'I just come here to see if I see any people I know, so I can talk to them. Is there anything I can do to help?' "
Although it's not a community center, LCH is the center of the community, Zarco said.
"When you come to this country looking for the opportunity to have a better life," she said, "and you are here alone without family, without friends, and you are speaking a different language, you are going to get depressed. . . .
"People need to know that someone here believes in them. They know we believe in them."