Auxiliary Legacy Story

Camino Health Center Auxiliary

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Unspoken Heroes: The Camino Health Center Auxiliary Story

More than 30 years and 1,000,000 patient visits later, Camino Health Center’s record of success speaks for itself. But it’s time to recognize some (mostly) unspoken heroes: The women of the Camino Health Center Auxiliary. A remarkable group of dedicated, caring women who’ve raised over $6 million for the Center.

“A remarkable group of women who’ve raised over $6 million for the Center.”
As a non-profit devoted to the health care needs of local uninsured and underinsured residents, the Center depends on financial support from the community. In fact, early fundraising efforts consisted of a glass donation jar that sat on the Center’s front desk. So just how did an effort that started by collecting spare change grow into a multi-million dollar funding powerhouse? It’s a fascinating story of hard work, dedication and vision. A story best told by starting at the beginning.

The year was 1982. Ronald Reagan sat in the White House. Michael Jackson released his monster album, Thriller. And Camino Health Center opened as the San Juan Community Clinic. It’s purpose? To provide urgently needed medical care for uninsured and underinsured residents in our local communities. Started by a group of caring, concerned citizens -- and led by Dr. Peter Czuleger, Dr. Sal Pepe, Mario Cuevas, R.N., Vince Newlin and Rev. Paul Martin -- the clinic operated from an empty storeroom at the St. Vincent De Paul Thrift Shop. With the need for the service strongly established, Rev. Martin called on Arthur Birtcher, who brought together the Center’s first Board of Directors. The Clinic expanded its mission to include any and all faiths in the local area, and capitalized on the expertise of the board members, which included a number of community business leaders.

“The clinic operated from an empty storefront at the St. Vincent De Paul Thrift Shop.”
The Center moved to a larger, more accommodating facility owned in part by Birtcher Pacific. The space was offered rent-free. The Center also changed its name to South County Community Clinic to better identify the service area.

In addition to the aforementioned glass donation jar, funding also came from proceeds raised by two dinner dances. Organized by Delores Frost and Dody Biebelberg, these pioneering efforts blazed the trail for more reliable methods of fundraising, so that the Clinic could maintain and expand its work.

A huge milestone occurred in May, 1985 with the establishment of the South County Community Clinic Auxiliary (SCCCA). The Auxiliary was the brainchild of Arthur Birtcher’s wife, Gaye. As she quite literally stood at her kitchen sink looking out at the garden, Gaye scoured through her personal address book, the City of San Juan Capistrano Chamber of Commerce Directory, among other sources, looking for (and recruiting) Auxiliary leadership. By the summer of 1985, the first Auxiliary board was set: Peggy Ackerberg – Dody Biebelberg – Gaye Birtcher – Linda Falk – Delores Frost – Kathy Nagy – Lydia Ramos – Diane Ray – Karen Voss.

But there were other community leaders deeply involved in forming the Auxiliary: Susan Matthews of The Carved Horse, Sandra Bair of Optical Illusions, and Donna Schuller, wife of Rev. Robert A. Schuller, pastor and founder of Rancho Capistrano Community Church, all played crucial roles in the Auxiliary’s early growth and success.

After establishing a set of By-Laws, the newly formed Auxiliary Board of Directors set its sights on growing the organization’s membership. The Board actively solicited friends and contacts to join the new fundraising group — one of the first organizations of its kind in south Orange County.

“The Auxiliary’s first fundraiser was called its’ “third annual fundraiser” to give itself some credibility.”
The Auxiliary’s initial fundraiser was held on September 20, 1985 and raised a record $13,800. (Tagging on the two previous fundraisers, the group actually promoted its first gathering as the “third annual fundraiser” in order to gain some credibility!) With success still in the air, the Auxiliary presented its first Fashion Show just three months later, in December, 1985. Susan Matthews, owner of the Carved House, produced the show. The runway member models wore fashions from her store, children’s clothing from Annalise Children’s Boutique, and accessories from Sandra Bair’s Optical Illusions. Little did they know that this first fashion gala would grow into one of the premier fundraising events in south Orange County.

The group built on the momentum in January of 1986 with a book signing at the home of one of the new members – while it was still under construction. The book’s author was Rev. Robert A. Schuller. Its title, Getting Through the Going Through Stages, accurately expressed both the Auxiliary’s growing pains, and its members’ commitment to success. The book signing also attracted the attention of attendees Wayne and Mame Mertes of National R.V. and Murray and Murel Brown of Murray Brown Jewelers. Mame and Murel soon joined the Auxiliary and became loyal, long-time supporters.

Later, Mame and Wayne retrofitted a 36-foot RV for use as a mobile care unit, enabling Camino Health Center to provide care for patients unable to visit the Center. Mame’s dedication was recognized at an Auxiliary Fashion Show, where she received the Woman of the Year Award.

“We were so sure we’d made a calculation error, we were a little afraid to announce how much money we’d raised.”
In May of 1986, the Auxiliary moved its fundraising mission from San Juan Capistrano to the Meridien Hotel in Newport Beach. With a sold-out crowd and a 100% underwritten event, the group took in an impressive $64,000 —the most successful fundraiser to date. In fact, the group was so surprised by how much they’d raised, they were afraid they had made an error, and wouldn’t announce it.

Home tours. Boutiques. Luncheons. Teas. Raffles. A booth during the Swallow’s Day Parade selling hot dogs. Marching in the parade with a banner. The Auxiliary traveled any and all avenues to raise money and awareness. All in all, the funds raised during the Auxiliary’s early years provided 49% of the Clinic’s operating budget.

Raising money has always been in fashion. The Clinic’s now-legendary Fashion Shows were originally held at El Adobe Restaurant. But in the third year the event moved to the Ritz Carlton in Laguna Niguel. Soon, South Coast Plaza began sponsoring the production of the Auxiliary’s annual luncheon and fashion show.

A series of spring dinner dances delighted guests during the Auxiliary’s formative years. After two years of throwing the event in a restaurant and hotel, the event was moved into private gardens in San Juan Capistrano. Over the course of five years, the dinner-dances were creatively themed, sometimes inviting attendees to arrive in costume. The Auxiliary secured sufficient donations prior to the event – covering all costs before a single ticket was sold.

Gaye Birtcher, founder and cornerstone. Mrs. Birtcher promised to stay on as President until the organization developed a committed and seasoned membership base. Her tenure as the group’s original President stretched five years, at which time Susan Matthews was elected President. As the years went by, Auxiliary leadership passed from one strong leader to the next. Gaye has stayed on as a permanent member of the Advisory Board of Directors for the Auxiliary, and was recognized as the Founder.

“Following a move to a larger facility in 1990, the Board of Directors selected a new name for the clinic: Camino Health Center.”
Of course, the Clinic had its own Board of Directors – a very active leadership group led by Chairman Arthur Birtcher. The Clinic had once again outgrown its quarters and moved to a larger building in the same complex – still with no rent to pay. The community stepped in and provided many of the needed building improvements, and the Clinic was able to move for just $11,000. The newly decorated facility featured fresh paint, new carpeting and updated exam tables. Each office and space reflected the caring touch of a multitude of donors.

Truth is, Camino Health Center and its Auxiliary have been blessed with a remarkable outpouring of support through the years. Not just the many generous monetary donations, but the donation of time and expertise brought the Clinic to local prominence. The Clinic benefitted immensely from the early, visionary leadership of Executive Director Dick Ruiz. Mr. Ruiz arrived with a vast knowledge of the County health care system and a long list of connections. He worked drawing no salary but also insisted that the cost of his salary remain a budget item. That way, after his tenure, the Clinic would be accustomed to providing compensation for the position.

Community Need: A prayer is answered. Continuing with its strong leadership and community support, in order to accomplish its lofty goals, in 1996, Mr. Birtcher met with Sister Martha Ann Fitzpatrick to request support from St. Joseph Health System, which had purchased Mission Hospital two years before. As luck would have it, the Sisters were deciding where their outreach to the underserved community would be focused. The Mission Hospital Board of Trustees voted to provide financial support as well as in kind support for Camino Health Center. The values of the St. Joseph Health System mirrored the values of Camino Health Center.

A mission supported by Mission. On October 1, 1996 Camino Health Center came under the sponsorship of Mission Hospital until 2010 when an affiliation was created. This partnership has resulted in a multitude of benefits for the patients. That was also the year that Debra Drew left Minnesota to become Executive Director, and now Chief Executive Officer, of Camino Health Center. Strong leadership, coupled with the support of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange, Mission Hospital and the Camino Health Center Auxiliary has created a thriving community health center poised to meet the needs of the most vulnerable in south Orange County. Today, as a Federally Qualified Health Center, Camino serves thousands of families each year through its medical clinic, dental clinic (serving prenatal women and children), two mobile medical units, an integrated behavioral health department (with psychiatric and licensed clinical social worker services) and a WIC (Women, Infants and Children) program. Plans are currently underway to expand services by establishing another site in San Clemente.

The Camino Health Center Auxiliary’s fundraising activities with the Fashion Show and other events raised a cumulative net fundraising total of $2,005,000 from 1985 through 2000.

By the turn of the millennium, the Fashion Show at the Ritz Carlton Hotel had become tradition – with sellout crowds each year. In 2006 alone, the Fashion Show, chaired by Kris Heusser, raised over $450,000.

Always looking for new ways to spread the word and encourage participation and donations, the Auxiliary’s newest annual event is the Ladies Camino Golf Classic. Held at Aliso Creek Golf Course, the inaugural event raised $12,000 to support special projects for the Health Center. Net proceeds in 2013 were $20,000 and reached $23,000 in 2014, when the golf event moved to the San Juan Hills Golf Course.

“The 30th anniversary of the Camino Health Center Auxiliary will be a time to recognize and celebrate the achievements of an amazing group of women.”
While a lot has changed since the Auxiliary was founded, the group continues to attract community minded philanthropic women. From humble beginnings with nine founding board members, the Camino Health Center Auxiliary has a growing membership, with more than 120 active members. In its quest for never-ending improvement, the Auxiliary now offers a more comprehensive new member orientation, with the goal of helping new members assimilate into the group and find the best way to contribute “time, talent and treasure.” Beginning in 2014, new member orientation features speakers from each area of emphasis within the Auxiliary, as more experienced members offer mentorship to new women joining the group.

2015 marks the 30th anniversary of the Camino Health Center Auxiliary and the remarkable work of dedicated and amazing women.

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