Smooth jazz played softly in the background while some 100 supporters gathered June 30 under a bright white tent beside the West Oakland Health Council (WOHC) on Adeline Street near 7th Street.
Benjamin Pettus _ a nationally recognized “turn around” specialist of community health centers _ was being officially introduced as WOHC’s new CEO. He laid colorful leis on the shoulders of arriving guest speakers who included Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) and Supervisor Keith Carson. The crowd _ clients, members of the reconstituted board of directors, and representatives from a full range of community health care providers across the East Bay and beyond _ made their way to their seats.
“I noticed the changes immediately,” Joquelene Ericks said, referring to Pettus’ effect since he took the reins in April.
Ericks should know; she has used the facility almost daily for 20 years. “More people are coming through the door, the quality of services are much better. You see it within the staff, within the building, even as you approach the building,” she said.
“We scoured the country to find a new leader,” said WOHC Board President Loyd Ware, who used the center’s services while growing up across the street. He cited the new CEO’s successful track record as an administrator of health care centers from Missouri to Hawaii.
“Change is coming,” Pettus said more than once during the hourlong program which he also emceed.
“WOHC is very dear to my heart,” said Lee, recalling her student days when she started her own community mental health program. She praised the vigilance and resilience of the staff and board to make sure that the center “not only survived, but now thrives.” She described community health centers as the only lifeline for quality health care services to underserved communities.
“The emergency room shouldn’t be an individual’s first contact with a doctor,” said Carson. “The founders of WOHC (almost 50 years ago) were idealists, radicals in their era.”
He noted the center was among the first, and for many years a model, for community-based health care. “You are keeping alive that vision of young radicals,” he told Pettus. “We need that radicalism renewed today.”
A fully uniformed Capt. John Moroney, MD and Regional Administrator of Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), the key federal funding source for community health centers, praised Pettus for what he has already accomplished.
Pettus pointed out that community health centers were initially called neighborhood health centers in the early days of the War on Poverty. Because clients make up 51 percent of the board of directors “you, the residents of West Oakland have a say,” Pettus said. He promised access to not only the best quality health care but volunteer opportunities, job training and employment. “And, as we approach our 50th anniversary, we are going to need a state of the art facility to continue to do so.”
He introduced Medical Director of the Alameda County Health Services Agency, Dr. Kathleen Clanon, “When things seemed to be going south, she was looking north,” he said.
“My inside seat to a lot of extraordinary work this past year by so many heroes was an experience of joy and gratitude,” Clanon said. “Our agency supports WOHC with funds but also with our hearts and minds.”
The new CEO’s appointment followed a tumultuous period. HRSA, the main funding source, had threatened to terminate its contract with the WOHC in 2015 due to a variety of problems. “The situation required lots of people with expertise to come together quickly to save the center,” Clanon said.
“Our biggest focus was to bring in a new CEO,” Ware said. “Mr. Pettus and his team have worked out perfectly.”
Pettus served most recently as President of Health Care Associates in Kansas City, MO. Previously he was CEO of Ko’olauloa Community Health Center, Hawaii, and Samuel U Rodgers Health Center (Kansas City) and Missouri Coalition for Primary Health Care (Jefferson City) in Missouri. He was also Deputy Executive Director of the national Association of Community Health Centers in Washington, D.C.
In addition to the West Oakland location, WOCH provides services at sites in East Oakland and West Berkeley. In 2015, WOHC served more than 8,000 community members with an average of five visits. Since its founding, it has provided more than two million patient care visits.
For more information, visit www.wohc.org.