Zero-profit clinic serves Chatham’s Hispanic community with free, bilingual services

Posted 5/13/21

SILER CITY — The typical doctor’s office treats patients Monday through Friday, eight hours a day, and has long since closed when Saturday morning arrives.

At Siler City’s Vidas de …

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Zero-profit clinic serves Chatham’s Hispanic community with free, bilingual services

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SILER CITY — The typical doctor’s office treats patients Monday through Friday, eight hours a day, and has long since closed when Saturday morning arrives.

At Siler City’s Vidas de Esperanza, however, that’s when they’re just getting started.

Inside a squat brick building on 401 N. Ivey Ave. for several Saturdays a month, UNC physicians and students, plus community members, devote a full day’s work to seeing and treating patients — about 95% of whom are Latino.

And they do it all for free.

“Everybody’s 100% volunteer,” said Vidas founder and president, Ascary Arias, who’s 47. “I don’t pay anybody. I don’t pay myself. … If I don’t pay anybody, all that money that I don’t pay people goes to the community. That’s the way I look at it.”

Established in Siler City about nine years ago, Vidas de Esperanza is a nonprofit organization that offers the community free medical and dental services. In just under a decade, they’ve assembled a roster of about 1,400 medical patients, plus around 600 dental patients.

Every last Saturday of the month, Vidas holds simultaneous medical and dental clinics staffed with volunteer UNC physicians and students. They’re all overseen by Vidas’ head doctor and vice president, Steve Kizer, who’s also Arias’ father-in-law. On the first or second Saturday of the month, the nonprofit also offers an extra dental clinic, which students and faculty from UNC’s School of Dentistry lead — making Vidas the largest student-run clinic in the area.

Besides check-ups, OB/GYN and primary care services, Arias said the clinic works with a lab to run blood work and provides patients with subsidized medications thanks to deals with local pharmacies. Vidas also recently held its first ophthalmology clinic — or eye exams — on April 24, a clinic for which Arias previously told the News + Record about 400 patients had already signed up.

And they do it all on a budget of about $30,000. Beside volunteer labor, the clinic receives most of its funds and medical equipment as donations. Arias himself also takes care of most of the clinic’s repair work.

“We do everything,” added Carolina Torres, the assistant director of Vidas’ medical and dental clinics. “I mean, we have to clean the clinic. We have to serve lunch.”

Originally from Honduras, Torres has been volunteering at Vidas for the past five years or so after meeting Arias in a Pittsboro coffee shop. She primarily coordinates patient appointments and clinic outreach.

“One time you get in Vidas and you let Vidas have an interaction with you, believe me, it is hard to stop even when you are tired,” she said. “ ... For me, it’s just amazing how this small nonprofit with not a lot of resources — because definitely Vidas doesn’t have the resources, the money — is doing so much for that community and giving so many services.”

‘We’ll figure something out’

Vidas de Esperanza didn’t start as a medical and dental clinic in Siler City. Rather, it all started as an initiative to help communities in Mexico. The idea to create Vidas first came from a trip to Arias’ hometown in Mexico — and a reminder of the life he'd left behind.

Originally from Ixmiquilpan, Hidalgo, in Mexico, Arias left for the U.S. when he was 17 years old to join his parents in Fuquay-Varina in Wake County. His goal at the time, he’d thought, was to find work in the tobacco fields. But after learning English and working his way through various jobs, he set his sights a little higher. He decided to go to school.

“I didn’t finish school in Mexico,” he said. “So basically, I stopped going to school when I was maybe 14. I didn’t really have any formal education whatsoever.”

After earning his GED in the early 2000s, he attended GTCC for a semester in Greensboro, where he and his wife had been living. At age 25, he transferred to Greensboro College, where he ultimately graduated with double majors in Spanish and sociology and double minors in art and international studies.

During his junior year in 2004, Arias returned to Ixmiquilpan with his wife and a few friends, nine years after he’d left. He visited his old house, which he remembered as a small brick house with an asbestos roof.

“Although,” he said, “the last couple of years I lived there, it didn’t have any roof.”

But turning the corner, he didn’t find an old house. He found a pile of bricks. The door frame, he remembered, still stood, and as he went in, a young boy came out from behind the rubble. He was barefoot.

“While I never walked the streets in my hometown without shoes, I did walk the streets very hungry because my parents left when I was 14 for the last time,” he said, adding, “My younger brother and I were left by ourselves. So we spent a lot of time being hungry because we didn’t have any food or anything. That boy reminded me of that.”

The sight lit a fire under him — and when he returned to Greensboro, he decided to start Vidas de Esperanza, which is Spanish for “lives of hope.” And why did he name the nonprofit “lives of hope”?

“When you are 15 and you’re running around with your brother and you’re stealing food and beer from places at night, and the next day, you have to go into the mountains to hunt so you can eat, you don’t really have a whole lot of hope,” he said, adding, “I thought about myself and my friends and people I’ve seen, a kid I saw die, and it’s like, ‘There’s not a whole lot of hope, so maybe we can be that place that gives some hope, that gives this life some hope.’”

Within six months, he had registered Vidas as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. By the time he graduated college, Arias had already made numerous trips down south, taking 12 to 15 students and Greensboro College faculty with him three times a year to do relief work.

At first, Arias said, Vidas’ work primarily revolved around his hometown. He and volunteers would help rebuild schools as well as distribute school supplies and food. Slowly, however, Vidas evolved to offer communities vital medical services.

While working in Mexico, a community approached him and asked for help building a medical clinic. Arias obliged, helping construct a 500 square meter building to hold medical clinics in Ixmiquilpan. With Kizer’s help, he brought in two or three doctors, who also traveled with Arias to surrounding areas to hold clinics for other communities. They'd see about 300 medical patients in a week.

After several years, though, Arias said they were forced to stop when local governments began sending medical brigades to co-opt their clinics.

“We were making them look bad, basically,” he said, adding, “Me being there doing so much work for the communities, it’s one of those things where they were afraid that people would start saying, ‘How come this guy comes all the way from North Carolina and the United States to do all this work, and our government is not doing anything?’”

Vidas stopped operating down there regularly about six years ago, Arias said, and shifted its attention to serving the local Hispanic community in Chatham County and surrounding areas — areas they’d been serving since 2012. 

“It’s not that the need is not there (in Mexico), because it is and it’s great,” he said. “But then it is great here, too. And it’s a lot more accessible for me. I have my own building. Then everybody comes. I don’t have to go anywhere, and everybody comes here.”

In 2012, Arias and his family moved to Pittsboro, and once he heard about several “socioeconomic issues” hurting Siler City’s Latino community, he decided to look into it. One of the biggest unmet needs he found was little access to critical medical care.

“Back at that time — I don’t even know if it was a law — but it was understood that the police could stop any Latinos driving or anybody,” he said. “And they were doing those things where they would have checkpoints, and people were being deported immediately or taken away from their families. So people stopped driving.”

Many couldn’t afford to see doctors because they didn’t have health insurance. But many, too, were undocumented and told Arias they just didn’t want to risk driving in case they were caught and deported.

“When it came down to it, I said, ‘You know what? If they had a local place where they didn’t have to drive too far at all, or maybe not even drive, would be great for them,’” he said. “Some people still walk over here to the clinic.”

Many, too, were “skittish,” he added, about sharing their information with organizations since they were in the U.S. illegally or might have been in trouble. And that’s why Vidas doesn’t ask for any more information than required.

“I just say, ‘Give us your phone number and your address,’ and that is only because we do blood work,” he said. “If we have the medicine, we don’t ask them if they can buy it. We give it to them. If we don’t have the medicine, and it’s super expensive, we ask them, can you buy it? And they will tell us. If they can, great. If they cannot, we’ll figure something out.”

‘It’s been a great blessing’

It was difficult initially to set up the clinic in Siler City, Arias said. Because people drifted in and out, it took a while to gather together a committed volunteer workforce. Getting the word out about the clinic also proved a challenge. 

“It was a big learning curve,” he added with a laugh.

By the time COVID-19 hit last year, however, Arias estimated that their clinics  received between 40 and 60 patients a day on average.

“That was right before COVID, and it was rising like crazy,” he said, “so if I think if COVID would not have hit, I don’t know what we would be doing right now. We were seeing a ton of patients.”

Last year, COVID-19 forced the clinic to close for a couple of months, but by June, they’d resumed the Saturday clinics — and they never stopped serving patients even during their two-month closure. 

“Our patients still needed their medicines,” Arias said, “Tons of them. So what we did is I talked to the local pharmacy, Chatham Cares, and they agreed to provide the medicines to all of our patients ... and they just saved me the tab.” 

The pandemic, Torres said, had a “big impact,” especially in the beginning. 

“When we reopened, definitely we felt people were scared to go,” she said. “We used to have 30 people — sometimes on crazy days, we had 45 patients in one Saturday. So after we opened, we had like 12, 15, so you know, I think it was a tough time to rebuild again.”

Yet despite COVID-19’s impact — both financially and in patient turnout — the clinic has continued to expand services. Thanks to UNC connections, it partnered with pharmaceutical company Novavax to enroll several willing patients into vaccine trials. Vidas has also partnered with UNC to hold two vaccination clinics, one in April and another this Saturday.

And besides adding an eye clinic to their list of services, he’s got a plan to add two new dental operator rooms.

“It’s tough to get seen (in the dental clinic) because the list is so long,” he said. “That’s why having those two new operator rooms will be great. Because right now I have three. If I have five, that’s two extra every time because the staff is there.”

For many people within and without Siler City, Vidas de Esperanza has been a “great blessing,” as Greensboro resident Gioconda Duarte Livis puts it. She’s been attending the clinic for two or three years. Thanks to Vidas, she said she was able to undergo genetic testing in Chapel Hill that she wouldn’t have been able to afford otherwise. 

“For me, it’s been a great blessing to find the clinic Vidas de Esperanza,” Duarte Livis told the News + Record in Spanish. “It has had an impact not only positively, but also personally. ... I have been able to have the opportunity to be cared for by doctors and staff who are there and who do it voluntarily.” 

And for Torres, that kind of impact sums up Vidas’ importance to the community.

“I have been able to see all kinds of things, like people crying, people in emergencies, people are scared because they don't speak any English and they are stressed because they don't have papers,” she added. “So when you see all of that, you feel the need to do something. I think that’s what we are trying to do.”

Reporter Victoria Johnson can be reached at victoria@chathamnr.com.

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