I’ll just call him “Jeff.”
I could offer his full, actual name, but I don’t want to put him under the glare of public attention. And, as you’ll soon understand, he’d rather focus your attention on Centre Volunteers in Medicine than on himself.
Jeff is an adopted resident of State College, having come here with his then-wife who was a Penn State graduate student. Without CVIM, his Happy Valley experience would have been disastrous.
A DEVASTATING ACCIDENT
Jeff was cruising the downtown Allen Street hill on his electric scooter one evening in January when a car came very, very close to him. To this day, he doesn’t know if the car struck him or just spooked him. He says his memory was erased after he flew through the air and struck a curbside tree.
Rushed to Mount Nittany Medical Center for emergency care, Jeff was soon transferred to Geisinger in Danville for surgery on his badly-broken leg. Although the surgery was successful, Jeff’s time in Danville was marked by constant anxiety.
He faced a mountainous medical bill (nearly $250,000), and because of his recent divorce, he was no longer covered by his wife’s Penn State insurance. Not only that, he would need post-surgical home care and physical therapy. He would not be able to work in the foreseeable future, and he realized that he would eventually lose his apartment.
“I was worried about what I would do with this or that,” says Jeff. “What about when I needed to go to the rest room or when I needed to eat? Believe me, I was super-worried.”
AGENCIES PROVIDE HELP
Fortunately, several agencies quickly stepped into the breach. First, Out of the Cold (one of my favorite local charities) offered short-term lodging and food; then help in renting an apartment.
Next, a friend told Jeff about Centre Volunteers in Medicine, and his first response to the idea of free medical care was, “That’s not possible.” But while still in Geisinger, Jeff got a call from Karen Johnson, CVIM’s case manager.
“That voice was like it was from God,” he says. “Karen said, ‘Any help you need, I will help you.’”
Of course, Jeff needed heaps of help. As Karen recalls, “When he first came here (the CVIM clinic), he was angry. He was sad. He was crying. He had a breakdown in the middle of the waiting room because he was in so much pain. He couldn’t sit very long because of the metal plate in his leg. It was winter, so it caused additional pain when the metal got cold.”
These days, however, Jeff displays a smile and a sense of hope. He effuses gratitude toward CVIM and people like Karen. “They gave me physical therapy and I saw a psychiatrist. If I say, ‘Karen, I need food,’ she takes care of it. And because she called this person and that person, they agreed to give me emergency insurance that covered my hospital bills. If I did not have this place, I don’t know where I would be right now.”
* * *
There was a time when I knew very little about CVIM. Perhaps I could have told you that it was a charitable group that provides free medical care to those who lack insurance. But I certainly couldn’t have solved a “Jeopardy” question to name the four words that correspond to the acronym of CVIM.
Fortunately, my good buddy Bob Ford began to enlighten me a few years ago. Not only did he describe the need for CVIM by mentioning the hard-working folks who lack medical insurance (nearly 11,000 Centre Countians are without insurance according to 2020 statistics). He also told me that many doctors, dentists and other medical professionals donate free time to the cause. Wow, medical folks who work for free?
By this point, I was thinking that maybe I should write about CVIM. And then the agency hit the ball completely over my proverbial outfield fence. A May 1 story on StateCollege.com reported that CVIM had been giving free COVID vaccinations since Jan. 14 and their total of individual shots had reached 21,750. (Today, they’re in the ballpark of a whopping 30,000.)
I wondered how I could help this group that is such a fabulous resource to our area. Bob told me about the upcoming Central Cycling Classic, one of CVIM’s annual fundraisers. As I later learned, the cycling classic is now in its 13th year, having raised more than $280,000 for the benefit of CVIM’s patients. Although individual cycling has already begun, the socially-distanced live event will take place on Saturday, with Bob and his longtime friend Roger Greene among the organizers. I decided that maybe I could help to focus some additional attention on the classic…
* * *
AN UNCONVENTIONAL START
I met recently with Bob and Roger and heard the whys and hows of their commitment to CVIM. Who would have thought the story would include a pink leotard and a bike ride from Bellefonte to Boston?
A Penn State graduate in kinesiology, Roger went directly from campus to industry as an employee with Restek, the Bellefonte-based corporation that makes chromatography products to monitor the quality of air, water, soil, foods and other critical substances. His job was to promote the health and wellness of Restek employees, and soon after he arrived there, his co-worker Melissa Ackerman proposed an in-house cycling event for Restek employees that would benefit CVIM.
This in-house Restek event began without fanfare in 2006, but the next year things took an interesting twist. It seems that a Restek employee had made remarkable lifestyle changes that resulted in her ability to lose approximately 115 pounds in six months. She did this while working out with Roger’s fellow trainer, a woman who applauded the employee’s accomplishment by wearing a pink leotard with a pink headband, pink wristbands and pink socks.
While planning the in-house cycling fundraiser for CVIM, Roger made a flippant remark.
“I’ll ride my bike all day wearing that outfit if we raise $1,000,” he said in the hearing of some Restek associates.
The word spread like wildfire through the employee grapevine, “and we had exceeded our goal within 90 minutes after that comment.”
ANOTHER BOLD OFFER
Of course, Greene felt a mite embarrassed in his head-to-toe pink attire. But any self-consciousness he may have felt was not enough to squelch his fervor to promote CVIM. And he proved that fact just a year later.
In 2007, still spearheading Restek’s in-house cycling event for CVIM’s benefit, Roger felt the challenge of reaching that year’s funding goal.
“I think we were trying to raise $5,500 to purchase a portable dental unit for CVIM,” he notes. “So I sent out a challenge to the organization saying that if we were able to raise that $5,500, I would physically bike to Boston the next year to meet up with our people who were running the Boston Marathon.” (Now titled “The Run for CVIM Challenge,” this fund-raiser for CVIM has taken place since 2002 and is now sponsored by Mount Nittany Health.)
Well, they did their part (Restek employees gave more than $5,500) and he did his part (Roger rode from Restek headquarters to Boston in 2008, going 100 miles each day for five days).
“It was a great experience,” says Roger of his exhausting trek to New England, “but I realized this wasn’t going to be the long-term plan.”
Fortunately, the one-year “Bellefonte to Boston” ride had already given birth to what is now called Central Cycling Classic. The founder of Restek, Paul Silvis, had urged Roger to recruit other cyclists—from inside or outside the company–to join him on the first day of his 2008 ride.
And that’s how a corporate initiative morphed into a community campaign. Some 60 Restek people and other cycling enthusiasts gave donations to CVIM and rode along with Roger, some for 100 miles and some for lesser lengths. One of those compatriots was Bob Ford, who joined Roger on the coordinating committee for the annual event.
PEDALING WITH PASSION
So why have individuals like Greene and Ford, plus Bob Eisenbraun and John Wainright, cared enough to remain on the cycling event’s committee for all these years? For Roger, the answer stems from the role that CVIM plays in our community and from the need he observed in one individual.
“CVIM is for hardworking people in our community,” says the native of Sayre, Pennsylvania. “People who are working but who don’t qualify for benefits, maybe they work multiple part-time jobs.
“I saw some images a number of years ago of someone who had come into the dental clinic after using something like Superglue to try to fix their teeth. That broke my heart. It legitimately broke my heart. And for me, that was the turning point where I decided we needed to do something. Even to this day, I still get choked up when I think about that.”
Ford, meanwhile, adds that “as great of an organization as CVIM is, I don’t think people really understand how much they do for the community, the underserved in the Centre Region. For me, that’s the highlight and it (the cycling event) moves from just a fun experience to a fun experience with a wonderful cause.”
MAJOR PLAYER IN VACCINATIONS
Despite its traditional under-the-radar status, Centre Volunteers in Medicine may have finally captured public attention through its no-cost COVID vaccinations. That effort began as things typically do at CVIM—a go-for-it response to community need.
In November, Kristi Mattzela, the organization’s clinical director, spoke with Executive Director Cheryl White and suggested that CVIM should apply with the Pennsylvania Department of Health to serve as a vaccine provider.
“We both agreed immediately,” says Kristi, an 18-year CVIM staff veteran, “because that might be the only way our uninsured patients could get vaccinated.”
Of course, it wasn’t easy for CVIM to offer thousands of free COVID vaccinations. In fact, the effort proved gargantuan. It was no small matter to comply with state guidelines, to secure appropriate venues, to insure on-time deliveries of the vaccine and to follow-up with patients for their second shots. But CVIM workers—both paid and volunteer—rose up dramatically to get the job done.
As for the volunteers, White notes, “People just couldn’t sign up fast enough to help us vaccinate. We haven’t had time yet to calculate the number of people and the number of their hours, but it’s going to be an incredible number.”
As for CVIM’s staff members, White notes that the manifold challenges of COVID vaccinations came on top of their normal responsibilities. Although Mattzela was the idea person, White says, “Our staff jumped right in with her and said, ‘Yes, we can do this. Even though we still have to do our regular jobs.’
Adds Mattzela, “We kept our eye on the goal of what we were doing, knowing that we were literally saving lives. That’s what kept us going during those hard times.”
FEELING THE LOVE
Ironically, one of the most sacrificial projects in CVIM history may turn out to be one of the best-rewarded. Now enjoying greater exposure in Centre County, the organization may be able to generate greater funding—and that would increase its capacity to help more uninsured residents.
“I’m so grateful for the name recognition that has come along with the vaccine effort,” says White, now serving in her 10th year as CVIM’s head. “Prior to this, I felt like we were one of the best kept secrets in Centre County. I would be out in the public and people would say about CVIM, ‘What’s that?’ or “We have a free clinic?’ And now when I’m out in the public, it’s like, ‘Oh, you vaccinated me!’ The outpouring of love from the community has been so great.”
Now wouldn’t it be wonderful if some of that gratitude showed up in much-needed financial support via the cycling event? Roger Greene hasn’t offered to wear any crazy outfit, and I don’t think that’s necessary for this year. It seems to me that Centre Volunteers in Medicine has made its case in a glorious manner, and I’m betting the community will respond.
This year’s fund-raising goal for the Central Cycling Classic is $35,000. Those who wish to participate in the event can register as riders, choosing one of several options that best suits their level of conditioning and experience. The online registration is available until noon on Friday; those who miss that deadline can show up Saturday morning at the start location (the VFW in Pine Grove Mills) and pay a slightly higher fee. And, of course, individuals can make gifts to CVIM at any time.