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Middletown health center expands with new green facility

Article first published in The Middletown Press

MIDDLETOWN — A three-floor living wall of greenery met those who walked into the sunny foyer of the Community Health Center’s new Knowledge & Technology Center Tuesday morning in the North End.

Comprising 600 individual plants arranged in a motif of colors, the display is an emblem of the organization’s mission to create such spaces inside and outside its facilities, as well as its efforts to counter climate change.

The new, 30,000-square-foot building at 19 Grand St. enjoyed its grand opening ceremony with dozens of dignitaries, staff, patients and other supporters, including Macdonough Elementary School students, in attendance.

The new, three-floor facility serves the health center’s state and national workforce development, telehealth and education programs, complimenting its headquarters across the street at 675 Main St.

It was designed by Robert Olson + Associates of Boston.

“We had this simple mission — to make sure health care was available to all people, regardless of their class or race or language or orientation, and other historic barriers of discrimination that people in our community face,” President and CEO Mark Masselli told those gathered, describing the organization’s founding in 1972.

What began in a walk-up apartment on College Street 47 years ago has grown to 212 locations throughout Connecticut, as well as Denver and Newport Beach, California. The organization serves 140,000 patients.

“It began with a youthful commitment to the simple idea that health care is a fundamental human right, no different from the freedoms and civil entitlements which are considered to be the basis of our societal contract,” said Rabbi Michael Kohn of Meriden’s Temple B’nai Abraham, who offered an invocation at the start of the event.

State Rep. Quentin Phipps, D-Middletown, said much of his job involves helping people, and quite often, answering constituents’ questions about health care.

“When it comes to healing, whether it’s mentally, spiritually or physically, one of my first calls is often to Mark and his team,” he said.

Most recently, Phipps worked at a small school in Stamford. He recalled the time when an “essentially homeless” mother appealed to him, asking how she could get a doctor’s note to allow her daughter, who had been out of school for a while, to return to classes.

The mother didn’t have health insurance.

“She was struggling” and “embarrassed” to ask Phipps for the favor, he said. He gave Masselli a call.

“Within moments, we were able to get this little girl back into school,” Phipps said. “It’s not just about a cold or getting your annual care, it’s really about keeping us collectively whole and that sort of holistic approach. I appreciate what this building represents: not just basic care, but care that’s truly dignified, which we can all appreciate and grow and thrive from.”

State Sen. Matt Lesser, D-Middletown, who lives in the North End and walked to Tuesday’s grand opening ceremony, said he considers the health center a neighbor.

During his vacation to Turkey a couple of years ago, Lesser said the phone rang in the middle of night. It was Masselli asking if the legislator could make one more call to Gov. Malloy to ask for funding.

“I remember turning to my wife and saying, ‘Boy. I hope this is a really nice building,” said Lesser, a champion of health care reform. “I can’t help but look, and yes, it is a very, very nice building.”

He said it doesn’t matter what you look like, how much money you make, where your family is from, everyone is entitled to health care.

“We look to you in inspiration and awe … and wonder how in the world you’re going to water that thing,” Lesser told Masselli as he gazed at the sprawling green wall.

It is dedicated to Maria and Luigi Furno, who maintained an abundant garden on the site of the new center. The couple now lives across the street.

“We have a saying at the health center: If you’re going to be engaged in the provision of primary health care, you have an obligation to improve it,” Masselli said about the health center’s many locations, including the Weitzman Institute in Middletown at 671 Main St., with a second office in Denver.

“It is dedicated to transforming the delivery of primary care through research, technology, education and innovation,” Masselli said.

Community Health Center also has a Center for Key Populations, which serves patients and populations with HIV or Hepatitis C, transgender people, sex workers and people in prison, Masselli said.

Kohn told a story that reminded him of the facility’s standard of care.

“In the Jewish tradition, the heart is the center of both human thought and spiritual life,” Kohn said. “People think the heart refers mainly to our emotions, but the Hebrew word for heart refers to one’s mind and thoughts as well.”

As a child, he walked through the Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia and marveled at a massive, walk-through model of the human heart.

“As you entered into the heart’s chambers, you could hear and feel the rhythmic beat,” he said. “If you walk into any of the community health centers today, I believe you will feel that same sense of heartbeat, that same spirit, and those same feelings as its people go about their work of helping the underserved members of the community.”

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