At The Corner in Ypsi, young people find health care that’s affordable, holistic and judgement-free

Forty-one years ago, The Corner Health Center in Ypsilanti became the first school-based health center in the state of Michigan. As a result, we remain the gold standard in child and adolescent health care today. 

We’re called, “The Corner,” because we originated in the corner of Ypsilanti High School. It was actually a small janitorial closet donated to us by Washtenaw County, from which we provided students medical and support services, with a special focus on the needs of teen moms. Today, our integrated health center provides a broad range of judgment-free, high-quality, affordable health services to young people ages 12 to 25, and their children.

Judgment-free means we’re a safe place where people can be their authentic selves. When legislation was passed prohibiting the distribution of contraceptives on school property, we launched a capital campaign to relocate to downtown Ypsilanti to continue fulfilling our mission to support young moms. Our distinction changed from a school-based health center to a school-linked one.

Today, we provide mental health and behavioral health services alongside medical care. We have allergy and immunology, OBGYN, med-peds, adolescent health, and pain and addiction physicians. Our unique wrap-around services include an on-site pantry and a care manager who helps our patients find jobs, and connects those in need with housing and utility assistance. 

Through word of mouth, our LGBTQ services and gender care are sought out by young people near and far. Although our primary focus has always been Ypsi’s 48197 and 48198 zip codes, our patients come to us from Wayne County, Ann Arbor, the Upper Peninsula and out of state. Many cannot receive this type of care in their small towns. 

Many of our young expecting mothers, even in this year, have been isolated with COVID-19. We’ve quickly pivoted to support them by delivering food, running errands and converting their appointments online. At the beginning of the pandemic, we received surprise funding from the Meijer Foundation to help us purchase equipment to pivot to telehealth with great ease. 

We’ve been strengthened by many valuable partnerships including St. Joe’s, U of M, Community Mental Health and United Way. I’m so thankful to be a part of Washtenaw County where these can happen. We also have the best donors on earth, who have continually reached out to ask how our patients, and my staff and I are doing.

Looking at COVID-19, and the death rates, we know they provide a measurement of our community’s overall health needs. Twelve percent of Washtenaw County is Black, but that population, primarily Ypsilanti residents, represents 41 percent of COVID-19 hospitalizations. Black infants are four times more likely to die within the first year than white infants, and their Black mothers have higher mortality rates for childbirth. The life expectancy of young Black men is significantly reduced if you turn left out of St. Joe’s heading into Ypsi rather than turning right into Ann Arbor. The Corner has always been at the forefront of these health inequities. 

But our needs increase. We have a six-month waitlist for our mental health providers. We need to hire more therapists and mental health staff. When a young person comes forward to say, ‘I need help,’ we need to be able to deliver help to them that day. Trying to figure out how we get ahead of this is one thing that keeps me up at night. We also need improved funding. With the ‘Great Resignation’ in healthcare, there are challenges with attrition. We can’t afford to pay what others can pay and so we struggle to attract and retain talent. Our staff love our mission, but we sometimes have challenges meeting them where they need to be.

Affordable healthcare, I’m proud to say, means we don’t turn anyone away. We see patients whether they’re fully-insured, uninsured or underinsured. If a young person is on their parent’s insurance, but comes to receive confidential services, allowed by law, we provide that service for free. We have a sliding scale, but we never want to shame people into paying. My job as a fundraiser is to make sure we have a sufficient patient resource fund to help cover expenses. 

I take tremendous pride in the creativity and innovation of The Corner. It’s something our staff here value as well. We’re out-of-the-box thinkers who tend to say yes more than we say no. Everything we do is aligned with our mission, but as we move forward, we’re looking at new ways to engage with our patients and community. As an African American leader, I don’t take my position lightly. I know there’s much that can be done, and needs to be done to help address the inequities.

Our peer-to-peer theatre troupe is truly a unique aspect of our health center. Our young people meet weekly to develop plays focused on health topics like COVID-19, substance use, sexually-transmitted infections, date rape, online bullying, etc. Working with a theater director and a social worker, they craft a 20-minute play highlighting these issues and then we go into schools and community centers and perform the play for students. 

This outreach allows us to fully capture the youth voice, a key aspect to our work, and lets students hear directly from their peers. It raises awareness and education, but also provides those in the audience with resources and what to look for. They learn they can come to The Corner to speak with someone confidentially about any topic. We’re also building cultural competencies with adults. We’ve seen parents have some real a-ha moments understanding what their young person is experiencing.

Recently, at one of our COVID-19 vaccination clinics, I met a woman who was a patient of ours when she gave birth to her daughter without any family support. Her daughter also became our patient, and now, she was bringing her grandchildren to get vaccinated. She acknowledged how critically important The Corner is to the community, as a grassroots organization solely focused on young people, and on making African American lives a priority. It was a rare gift for me to hear firsthand the impact our work is having on multiple generations. These are the moments that inspire me. 

Read about the Corner’s recent partnership with Ann Arbor’s University Musical Society to use art, dance and music to connect with Washtenaw County youth about all things COVID-19. 

Versell Smith, Jr. is the executive director at The Corner Health Center in Ypsilanti. This entry is part of our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19, a heightened awareness of racial injustice and inequality, issues of climate change and more are affecting their work–and how they are responding. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.act Detroit.