Clinic Celebrates 35 Years

By Richard Brenneman
Friday May 21, 2004

Formed to provide free treatment for the injuries inflicted on protesters during the People’s Park riots of 1969, the Berkeley Free Clinic is still going strong 35 years later and looking for volunteers from years past to help them celebrate their anniversary. The private celebration will be held during the upcoming Memorial Day weekend. 

“We pride ourselves on not having evolved at all in terms of the core values of the original founders,” said Catherine Swanson, who is coordinating the anniversary fete. “Some services have been added, some have died, and some have spun off, but the original vision remains constant. Our commitment to that original vision makes us very unique, our anti-establishment raison d’être.” 

The clinic shares space with the Trinity Methodist Church at 2339 Durant Ave. and can be reached by telephone Mondays through Fridays from 3-9 p.m. at 548-2570. 

An estimated 10,000 visitors a year call or drop by the clinic to avail themselves of the various services. 

“We’re one of the last clinics in the country to remain truly free,” Swanson said. The Bay Area’s best-known counterpart, the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic, recently began asking patients for donations based on their ability to pay. 

The clinic is funded by an all-volunteer staff. “There are about 200 of us at any given time, and there have been thousands over the years,” Swanson said. Current volunteers include about 20 physicians and nurses. “People don’t understand that we provide services to all comers, regardless of ability to pay. We’re very pluralistic. A lot of people think we only serve one group, like the homeless, but we’re here for everyone.” 

The clinic’s funding comes from three principal sources, each contributing about one-third of their annual budget: government grants, foundation grants, and donations from the general public. 

“We can always use money,” Swanson said, “but we need volunteers, too,” adding that anyone considering a volunteer stint with the clinic is welcome to attend the monthly All-Clinic Orientations, held the third Monday of each month at 7:30 p.m. Swanson herself has been a regular at the clinic for seven years. 

Among the services available are basic medical care, treatment of sexually transmitted diseases, HIV testing, the nation’s most comprehensive hepatitis testing program, peer counseling, an information and referral hotline, and dental care. 

Andrea Zeppa, a long-serving clinic veteran and an organizer of the anniversary fete, said “most people don’t realize that the silent service of the Berkeley Free Clinic is education of members. We have educated hundreds of folks in the basics of medicine, collectivity, counseling, dissident politics—you name it.” 

Zeppa said many volunteers who started without a thought of a medical education have gone on to medical school. 

“The people who have worked here over the years are amazing,” he said, “and we would like to see them again to talk to them about the history of the clinic and have them help celebrate with us.” 

Past volunteers are urged to contact the clinic about the anniversary events by e-mail at bfc_alumni@yahoo.com. For more information on the clinic, see their website at www.berkeleyfreeclinic.org.