The importance of human connection and the innate need for people to physically and spiritually connect to the earth and all its life forms are concepts not lost on Gwendalle Cooper.
At the end of October, the 94-year-old La Mesa resident gave a talk about connection at a gathering at the San Diego American Indian Health Center, a nonprofit, full-service community healthcare space in Bankers Hill.
“It was remarkable,” said Paula Brim, chair of the board of SDAIHC. “(Cooper) talked about how we are all connected to each other, and how we are connected to earth. She showed veins in a leaf and veins in the human body, and how they are the same. Then she had photos of a crosscut of tree stump rings and thumbprints of a human. And they were identical.”
The talk given by the Native American elder is just one highlight of the myriad programs, services and offerings that have taken place this year at the center, which offers health care not only to American Indians but also to people of all ethnic backgrounds.
Since its beginnings in 1979, the center that serves nearly 19,000 individuals every year has delivered comprehensive medical, dental, behavioral health and community wellness services for San Diegans from across the county. The spirit of the center is grounded in Native American Indian culture and traditions, but the 80-member staff takes pride in caring for the mind and the body − and the spirit − of all the diverse populations they serve.
Dually funded by federal Health Resources and Services Administration and Indian Health Service, the mission of San Diego American Indian Health Center is to promote excellence in health care with respect to custom and tradition.
SDAIHC’s goal is to reduce the significant health disparities of San Diego’s urban American Indian and other underserved populations by improving their health care, resulting in increased life expectancy and enhanced quality of life.
In addition to medical, dental and behavioral health needs – both preventative and maintenance care – SDAIHC offers telemedicine; wellness and self-care workshops; sexual health care checks and “wellbriety,” focusing on addiction prevention and recovery, healing from substance abuse, intergenerational trauma and co-occurring disorders.
Additionally as seen more in Native American traditions, the center also has healing circles, specialized inter-tribal wisdom gathering sessions and a “good medicine youth outreach” program. It even hosts a popular annual Pow Wow at nearby Balboa Park every spring and also holds other programs and activities the park.
“It’s like a melting pot – all are welcome here,” said CEO Kevin LaChapelle, who took over as CEO in November 2019, just before COVID-19 became a household phrase. “Clients come from all around San Diego County, from the South Bay, North County, Clairemont, East County, all over.”
LaChapelle said that the pandemic never shut the center down and in fact the site became a place where Bankers Hill businesses and other neighbors were able to be tested and vaccinated.
SDAIHC and its nine-member board of directors is currently heading down a new path, setting out to raise $25 million through private donations and grants to expand its patient-centered, culturally competent health care.
It is currently housed in a two-part, walkway-connected former apartment complex that SDAIHC bought in 2017 but is long past its prime, Brim said. The site spans a nearly 13,000-square foot space. LaChapelle said he believes some of the “piecemealed” development was built in 1920, another part of it in 1960.
Now SDAIHC is moving ahead on first-phase plans to more than double its size. The larger space will also increase its staffing, currently at 80 health practitioners and add a pharmacy. Its plans are to build a 3½- story (up to a possible 5½-story) more than 50,000-square foot site adjacent to its current site on First Avenue at Maple Street. The rooftop will double as a meeting space and place for outdoor events and ceremonies.
New services for the expanded center will allow the team to provide extended-hour Urgent Care with on-site X-rays; expanded women’s services, including mammography; on-site laboratory services; retinal scanners for diabetes diagnoses; and other services defined by community need.
The process to grow and expand has already been shared and accepted by the City of San Diego, and is moving through other steps of the permitting and development process.
LaChapelle said if all goes well and the city keeps the plans moving along through its system, the first phase of the expansion could come within the next two years.
San Diego American Indian Health Center
FOUNDED: May 1979
CEO: Kevin M. LaChapelle
HEADQUARTERS: First Avenue, Bankers Hill
BUSINESS: Nonprofit healthcare
BOARD MEMBERS: 9
SOCIAL IMPACT: SDAIHC brings together comprehensive medical, dental, behavioral health and community wellness services for any and all San Diegans who find themselves in need
NOTABLE: SDAIHC is currently raising funds for new center to more than double its size, increase its staff and offer an upgraded environment for health care.