Local churches, community members host free medical and dental clinic for underpivileged — and often unrecognized — Southwest Portlanders

For the past eight years, a nonprofit organization known as Compassion Connect has brought to- gether local churches to deliver the same medical and dental services they have offered on international mission trips right here in the Portland metropolitan area. And on May 17, at Wilson High School, Southwest Portland had its first such clinic — Compassion Southwest CONNECTION PHOTO: DREW DAKESSIAN - Volunteers perform dental work on a Compassion Southwest Portland guest free of charge.

“I had volunteered at about five or six of these clinics as a dentist, and I’m a member of Riversgate Church,” said Curt Lemrick, Compassion Southwest Portland organizer and Multnomah neighborhood resident. “And I just went to our pastor and said, ‘Hey, do you want to do one of these clinics?’ And he said, ‘Sure,’ and that’s how it got started.”

Lemrick and his pastor contacted Compassion Connect seeking guidance as to just how to go about making their dream a reality, and were advised to arrange a meeting with some other Southwest Portland-area churches.

“We went over the logistics of it and decided it would be a good fit for our community,” he recalled, “and started planning from there.”

They purchased, for $99, a so-called Compassion Clinic tool kit, which according to the Compassion Connect website, includes “a general manual that covers the vision and overview of a clinic’s logistics, a Dental and a Medical manual, at least a dozen training videos and access to downloadable print media for the clinic.

“It goes through how to organize a team of people that are responsible for each of the areas of the clinic,” Lemrick explained. “For example, there’s a dental area and a medical area, a social services area; and it just goes through all those teams that you need.”

In early March, they held a kickoff event at Portland Christian Center in Hillsdale.

“Basically, we just tried to publicize it as much as we could before that to generate some excitement about the idea and get some people there, and presented what the vision was for the clinic and asked for volunteers specifically to head up these teams,” Lemrick said. “We generated quite a bit of momentum from that — 150 people signed up as volunteers.

“I did not anticipate that much excitement right off the bat; we pretty much got all of our team leaders on board from that — at least 10 to 12 — and from there on we just started having regular meetings with the team leaders ... coming together and working through the details of what we need.”

Caleb Bryant, high school and young adult pastor at Portland Christian Center, said the was inspired to get involved with Compassion Connect largely because it dovetailed with his values as a Christian.

“I think one of the unique elements is it’s something that goes beyond one church; it’s something that requires multiple churches and businesses to work together for the benefit of the community, and that’s something that the Church hasn’t always done well. ... Sometimes it’s easy, like in any organization, to get very inward-focused, and so we all got together and said, ‘How can we not be inward focused?’ We don’t think Jesus was inward-focused; he was very much about serving the people around him.”

The next step was to settle on location this massive undertaking. After meeting with the administration, they arranged for Wilson High School as the Compassion Southwest Portland venue.

“Compassion, they recommend schools, because it is kind of central to the community; it involves so many families because that’s where the kids go. Community centers can be used but it’s just usually not quite as easy to use the space. Same thing with elementary schools; I have seen elementary schools ... used before, but sometimes they’re a little too small to host a big event,” Lemrick said.

Wilson, by contrast, “was nice because it was right here — central in Hillsdale — on the bus route so that people who use public transportation could there really easily,” he said. “It’s a big space, it has a lot of room ... and they were happy to have us.”

When the big day finally arrived, over 350 people turned out to the clinic, which offered services including:by: CONNECTION PHOTO: DREW DAKESSIAN - A tray of artificial teeth at Compassion Southwest Portland.

  • Basic medical exams and treatment care
  • Basic dental care, i.e., cleaning, fillings, extractions and x-rays
  • Chiropractic treatment and therapeutic massage
  • Foot care
  • Flu and TDAP immunizations
  • Blood pressure and diabetic screenings
  • Haircuts
  • Child care
  • Community services networking and referrals
  • Free lunch
  • Clinics like this are still necessary even in a post-Affordable Care Act world, Lemrick said, because Medicaid simply doesn’t cover most of the services, and the program is often difficult for not only patients, but also providers to navigate.

    When asked if he thought Compassion Southwest Portland had been beneficial for his fellow citizens, Jerry Kent Sr., a guest, said, “Well, for a lot of people, yes. ... A lot of people, they don’t have dental insurance, and there’s no programs out there for the dental, and so they’re able to come here and receive the services.”

    According to Lemrick, Compassion Southwest Portland is likely to be an annual event for at least the next few years. After that, he said, the hope is that enough awareness will be generated that people will be willing to contribute on an ongoing basis, and once Compassion Southwest Portland gets a better feel for the community, the clinic will be pared down to focus on the services that the Southwest Portland community specifically needs.

    Why have there been no such clinics in the area until now?by: CONNECTION PHOTO: DREW DAKESSIAN - The Wilson High School cafeteria served as a makeshift dental center at Compassion Southwest Portland May 17.

    “Probably, no one thought of it, and possibly ... people perceive that there’s less need in Southwest Portland,” he said. “A lot of people have said, ‘Oh, really, you need one in Southwest Portland?’ But I think compared to other parts of the city it’s (just) not as evident.”

    Bryant agreed.

    “I think probably the impression ... is that Southwest Portland is largely a white-collar, more financially well-off community, and there’s parts of that that are very true,” he said. “I think, though ... If you ask some of the leadership in Portland Public Schools, or owners of some of the (low-income) apart- ment complexes and that kind of thing in the area, you’ll find out very quickly that Southwest Portland has a large segment of underprivileged and really forgotten people that sometimes come from a variety of different ethnic backgrounds ... and it’s kind of amazing the different languages that were needed to be spoken today to pull this off.”

    Some Portland Public Schools students, too, seemed to be acutely aware of this invisible population.

    “I wanted to volunteer today because I think it’s a really awesome opportunity for the community to kind of help out a group of people that we don’t normally see,” said Liam Reese, a Wilson High School senior. “We live in Southwest Portland; we’re very privileged and oftentimes it’s easy to forget that there are a lot of people out here in need.

    “So when we see them congregate in our school, and we know that we can make a difference, that’s very cool.”

    Drew Dakessian can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and 503-636-1281, ext. 108.

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