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LIGHTNING PHOTOS: Pioneer Blue Ridge health clinic celebrates 50 years

Tracy Stevens celebrates her beach vacation with emcee Ronnie Pepper. Tracy Stevens celebrates her beach vacation with emcee Ronnie Pepper.

There were two vacation winners at the Blue Ridge Community Health Center gala Saturday night — one official and one unofficial.


The celebration, Opening Doors to a Healthy Future, marked 50 years of the organization that started in the Edneyville and Dana apple orchards 50 years ago, making it the oldest continuously operating community health center in America, the president of the North Carolina Community Health Center Association said.

In the Golden Key Raffle Game, 10 raffle tickets were drawn for finalists to test keys to three doors — red, white and blue. Behind three doors were the grand prizes of the night — the beach vacation at Kiawah Island, an encaustic painting by Sue Fazio and a $2,500 shopping spree at Decor8 on South Main Street in Hendersonville.

Why two winners of the beach trip?

The official winner,was Tracy Stevens, who won a key that unlocked the door that held the prize. Mark Williams, the Agribusiness Henderson County director, was one of the finalists. Dr. Robert Laborde, who offered the Kiawah Island beach house, learned at the event that Williams' mother, Loretta, had just retired after serving Blue Ridge Community Health Center for 38 years.

"I asked him, if he had won, would he take this mother or would he leave her with the kids and take his wife," Dr. Laborde said. Williams said he'd take his mom and family. Right answer!

"Here's the key," Laborde told Williams. He gave Williams a week at the beach even though he had not officially won the trip.

"It sits empty unless I decide to rent it," Laborde said in explaining his impromptu gift.

Friends of the health clinic celebrated the center's 50 years at the gala Saturday night at Kenmure Country Club.

Fifty years ago, in 1963, the Beatles had released their first album, the average household income was $6,000 and the new drug Valium became the hottest selling prescription. In the Henderson County farm fields, workers and their families had no health coverage and children as young as 5 and 6 were put to work in the orchards and produce fields. A public health nurse named Claire Burson and a core group started a migrant health organization in 1962. A year later it became a nonprofit organization and in 1988 it became Blue Ridge Community Health Services.

"1963 was a snapshot of time that defined who were 50 years ago," said BRCHC CEO Jennifer Henderson. "Our mission was to serve the disadvantaged, people living in poverty and people lacking health care, and our mission is the same today."

When it came time to recognize BRCHS for 50 years of service, the state organization looked around and found that no other center had achieved that. One community health center in California started earlier and didn't last and another started, stopped and restarted, said E. Benjamin Mooney Jr., the president of the North Carolina Community Health Center Association. Blue Ridge is the longest continuing operating federally qualified community health clinic, he said.

Blue Ridge health center has 160 employees and an annual payroll of $5 million. It serves 13,000 uninsured patients a year, Henderson said. Ninety-nine percent of its patients are low-income and 65 percent are uninsured. Its new partnership with Pardee Hospital to makes it the first community health services agency in the state to train medical residents.

"People ask me why do we need donations if we get federal grants," Henderson said. "If we relied solely on federal grants we would have to turn away half those 13,000 patients and those patients need our community's health."