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Soft hands, warm heart

Liz MacDonell brings a worldly view and laser-like intensity to the Virginia Garcia F oundation
by: Chase Allgood,

It's not surprising that Liz MacDonell ended up in a job that requires her to persuade people in suits to give money to people with dirt under their nails.

The combination of business savvy and philanthropic outreach is embedded as deeply in her family's DNA as the fossil fuels that wildcat oil driller Alexander T. MacDonell extracted from American soil in the 1800s.

According to legend, during the Mexican Revolution, Alexander T. even bribed Pancho Villa to return an oil rig that had been left inside a battlefield.

His daughter-in-law, Elizabeth M. MacDonell, was the longest-standing female volunteer in Ohio to serve in the American Red Cross during World War II.

So it may seem natural that Liz MacDonell, Elizabeth's namesake (and great-granddaughter of Alexander T.), should wind up as executive director of the Virginia Garcia Memorial Foundation, which today is opening its third health clinic in Washington County.

'She can break through walls,' said her oldest brother, George MacDonell, a landscape architect in Florida. 'If she feels like she is on the right track, she doesn't care what anyone else thinks.'

MacDonell, who came to the foundation in May 2005, has focused that laser-like intensity on the non-profit's bottom line.

Tax documents filed for 2004, the year before MacDonell took over; show that the foundation received about $50,000 in contributions and grants to provide health care to low-income farm workers in Washington and Yamhill counties.

That figure, MacDonell says, jumped to $395,000 last year, as she gained contributions from Kaiser Permanente, Oregon Health and Science University, Providence Healthcare, Care Oregon and Northwest Health Foundation.

The revenue line rose dramatically again this year, as MacDonell secured a $600,000 federal grant for the foundation to expand its medical centers' operations.

The federal grant comes as a new primary care facility is installed in Hillsboro (see box). The center, located on Pacific University's Health Professions campus, marks a new chapter in an effort that began three decades ago.

Clinic effort was born

from tragedy

The Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center was created to correct the cultural and language barriers between English-speaking doctors and patients not yet fluent.

The project began in 1975 after the death of Virginia Garcia, a six-year-old Hispanic girl afflicted with a treatable foot wound after working with her parents in a strawberry field near Cornelius.

In response, community leaders built a clinic out of a three-car garage in Cornelius to serve seasonal laborers.

The foundation was established in 2001.

Three years later, a new clinic opened in Beaverton.

The clinic in McMinnville, started in 1994 as a primary care clinic. It serves 4,000 patients in Yamhill County.

The four clinics, which serve nearly 30,000 people a year, have become places of refuge for uninsured families, who can avoid costly visits to the emergency room by getting physicals, immunizations and maternity care for a $15 co-pay. (And no patient is turned away.) Virginia Garcia Memorial Center also operates a mobile-clinic van that provides on-site treatment for workers in migrant camps in Washington and Yamhill counties.

Doctors using the mobile clinic also teach day laborers about AIDS, exposure to pesticides and ways to prevent work-related injuries.

'Our focus is entirely to serve those that are falling though the cracks,' said Chris Shine, development coordinator and grant writer for the foundation.

Shine said MacDonell has been crucial in organizing the foundation, from coordinating a board of directors to concentrating on individual donor contributions.

Take-charge attitude

came early

MacDonell's leadership skills were evident as early as the third grade, according to her mother.

'Her new teacher called and said Elizabeth was telling her classmates what to do,' said Sally MacDonell, who lives in Ohio. 'She said that the students wanted to do what Liz was telling them more than what the teacher asked.'

MacDonell eventually enrolled at Phillips Academy Andover, an independent co-ed boarding school. She received her undergraduate degree in English at University of Michigan and got a Masters in Education at the University of Illinois.

In her twenties she was a tri-athlete known to read 'Sports Illustrated' cover-to-cover.

But MacDonell said that a comfortable upbringing and a phenomenal education didn't elicit pretension.

In the 1980s, her mother co-founded one of the nation's first hospices for AIDS and cancer patients in Lima, Ohio. In its first few years, Sally worked on call 24/7 as a nurse.

Her father, John, while working as a banker, sat on the board of directors for the American Red Cross and Salvation Army for four decades.

'I grew up in an environment watching him give back to the community all the time,' MacDonell said.

But she didn't follow her parent's path naturally. It took the gaze of a drained day laborer an ocean away.

'Wizened' hands leave

an impression

As a college senior she was traveling in China with other students of similar backgrounds.

'We were on a bus in Beijing, a comfy cushy bus, and a city bus pulls up next to us - and the people are packed,' she recalled. 'I am looking at this old man, tired, worn-out, with these hands that have worked so hard, wizened hands. I realized how different the world is for some people.

'Now I go out to the migrant camp and I see those hands, strawberry stained hands, and my hands are soft,' she said looking at her arms, raised in protest.

'But with my hands I can try to change some part of the world, to work with my soft hands to make some difference.'

After returning from her experience abroad, she finished graduate school and moved to Oregon 13 years ago. She worked with Campfire USA Portland Metro Council, a non-profit that offers after-school programs for disadvantaged youth. When she heard about an opening at Virginia Garcia Memorial Foundation, she threw herself into it.

'I think there is some gene in me that makes me do this,' she said.

A portrait of six-year-old Virginia Garcia welcomes visitors at the door of every clinic, helping patients feel confident in a setting where emotions run the gamut.

'There was an older couple from Mexico who've come in for a number of years,' said Kristine Harter, a resident nurse in Cornelius. 'She had a heart problem and he managed her pills - it's the kind of situation where everyone knows their name and wants to know how she is doing.'

Draws from personal

experience

MacDonell can relate with the emotional upheaval of having a loved one in and out of the hospital. In 2001, her partner, Lisa, was diagnosed with a severe case of breast cancer.

'We had the ability to research, we had the financial stability and we weren't afraid of asking the doctor questions, MacDonell recalls. Even so, the experience was frightening.

She notes that the people who come to her clinics 'have no money, no health care, don't speak a common language. So I am trying to knock down some of those barriers; because I know what its like to walk down that path, even without them.'

And for MacDonell, it's the familiarity that comes with experience which stirs her to see life as an endeavor and attack it with the fervor of an oil prospector and the heart of a Red Cross volunteer.

Or, as her brother George put it, 'That is why she can do what she does, operating on both of those levels: from the basement to the penthouse.'