by Amanda Covarrubias, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
April 3, 2008 - Perched against the mountains on the northern tip of Los Angeles, Sun Valley is used to being ignored by City Hall.
The gritty community of old landfills, power plants, auto-body shops, junkyards and industrial sprawl was home to massive quarries that produced the sand and gravel that helped build modern Los Angeles. But residents have long complained that the city has given them little in return -- except for trash hauled into the local landfill.
On Wednesday, however, many residents said officials finally provided something they need: the Sun Valley Health Clinic on the grounds of a local middle school.
By placing a full-service community clinic on a school campus, officials hope to create a convenient location for families to get regular health services. The middle school happened to have land available, but officials see the model as a prototype that, if successful, could be replicated elsewhere.
City and county leaders, as well as community activists, hailed the facility as a turning point for the district of 84,000 mostly working-class Latino residents, where one-third of the population is uninsured and most children come from families living below the poverty level.
According to Los Angeles County officials, residents in Sun Valley and adjoining northeastern San Fernando Valley cities register high rates of asthma, obesity and diabetes. A prime goal of the clinic is to provide basic healthcare services to residents who now rarely see a doctor. The emphasis will be on preventive care.
The 10,000-square-foot Spanish Mission-style clinic is on the campus of Sun Valley Middle School.
The project took more than six years to become a reality. The Los Angeles Unified School District supplied the land, the county supplied $7.5 million for construction and the private Northeast Valley Health Corp. and the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine agreed to provide healthcare services for free or at reduced cost.
Officials said the clinic could not have been built without this team approach, in part because land for new health facilities is usually very difficult to find.
Backers said they hoped the clinic would help Sun Valley residents get the kind of healthcare available in more affluent areas.
"Some of these things a family physician in West L.A. or Pasadena might be able to identify don't get dealt with in this community, and many don't know it would be easily treatable or managed, and by the time they realize something is wrong, it becomes a more complicated problem than it might have been," said Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who proposed setting up a clinic in Sun Valley.
On Wednesday, Miguel and Maria Barboza visited the clinic with their daughters, Jasmine, 8, and Claudia, 5, who needed physical examinations required by the school district. Barboza, who lives in nearby North Hollywood, said he was impressed with the building and the staff who work there.
"It's great; it's a really nice place," he said. "It's really close to our home."
Barboza said his family is uninsured, but thanks to a consumer relations specialist who works on the premises, they registered for government health insurance programs that could help them pay their medical bills. He said diabetes and heart conditions run in his family.
"My wife and I will come here for checkups," he said.
Before the clinic opened, the only county health facility for those who cannot afford a private doctor was several miles away in Pacoima. But because of the huge demand, residents said, that clinic was overcrowded.
Juana Martinez of Pacoima visited the Sun Valley clinic Wednesday with her 4-year-old daughter, Emely Tohom. Martinez said that though the county-operated clinic in Pacoima is closer to her home, because it is crowded she might start going to the one in Sun Valley.
"This is a beautiful facility," Martinez said as Emely scampered nearby with a balloon.
The community health center will offer a range of services from 13 exam rooms, four counseling offices, a pharmacy, a lab, a dental clinic and education and training rooms, as well as space for the federal Women, Infants and Children program.
The rotunda lobby features two large mosaics made by Long Beach artist Terry Braunstein of glass, ceramic, photo transfers and hand-painted tiles.
Public art is a welcome addition for many residents of Sun Valley, who have long complained that City Hall views the district as a dumping ground.
Activists fought for years to close the Bradley Landfill. During record rain storms in 2005, many Sun Valley streets were flooded and a massive sinkhole opened up, killing a city worker. At the time, residents said the city never provided adequate storm drainage systems.
"Sun Valley is a neighborhood in the Valley that doesn't get the kind of attention other neighborhoods get," Yaroslavsky said. "It hasn't been paid the kind of attention it deserves. Hopefully with this clinic, we're going to change that."
Joni Novosel, a member of Valley Care Community Consortium, which works to bring health services to underserved areas, said Sun Valley was overdue for such a facility.
"A lot of it has to do with the fact that it's a low-income neighborhood of color, and I think people tend to ignore those kinds of communities," she said. "There's not as many voices advocating for the poor in the Valley as there are in other areas of the city."