HOPE works to help those in need break through barriers

Since 2008, Help and Outreach Point of Entry, or HOPE, has worked out of the basement of Wicomico Presbyterian Church on Broad Street, at first focusing on helping homeless or marginalized people find money to pay for medications.

HOPE founder Donna Clark.

“This started in 1997, when there was no Medicaid prescription coverage,” said HOPE founder Donna Clark, explaining she had first learned of the need for this while working under the umbrella of Salisbury Urban Ministries.

But Clark soon realized that marginalized people can’t even be seen for medical care in the first place if they do not have proper ID, and many do not.

“So we began focusing on helping them get the documentation and tools they would need to receive housing, employment and health care,” Clark said.

In 2020, during the pandemic, HOPE’s biggest expense is paying for birth certificates, she said.

“People trying to get into housing need a birth certificate and ID,” she said. “It’s a Catch-22 for them.”

“We have learned to navigate this,” Clark said. “Each state has different requirements. We’ve learned how to work with each state to get our clients the documents they need.”

HOPE helps people obtain Social Security cards, too.

“The hospital sometimes helps us get what we need,” Clark said. “Social Security will accept certified medical documents.”

HOPE works with 43 different agencies, from Hudson Health to MAC Inc., to help clients.

“As we find needs, we find ways to meet those needs,” said Clark.

One client HOPE encountered about eight years ago had paranoid schizophrenia, but no documentation,” First they had to gain his trust. They got him his documents, Clark said, then got him into health care and psych meds, and into a housing program.

“He’s now a functioning member of our community,” Clark said. “It takes time, patience and a lot of love.”

In another case, Clark described how an elderly woman came in asking for assistance with medications.

“While sitting here, she learned from listening that we help with dental care,” she said, “and we were able to help her start receiving dental care. When she returned again, she found out we assist with eye care.”

HOPE works with three eye doctor offices.

“Her eyeglasses, medications and dental care were taken care of during a four-month period,” Clark said.

Everything has changed since March, when HOPE had to shut down completely because of Covid-19. In May dental offices began to open again and HOPE worked on a limited basis, helping three or four clients a day.

“Now we see about 17 per day,” Clark said. “Before the pandemic, we would see as mamy as 50 people a day, on average. We used to serve lunch, and people could hang around until closing. We can’t do that no, without staff and under Covid restrictions.”

In 2007, when HOPE first received nonprofit status, the entirety of the work was done by Clark and one outreach worker, Pat Marvel.

“We would work out of a car, visiting homeless camps and soup kitchens,” Clark said. “As things got bigger, Linda Davis, a retired teacher, started working as our office manager. She took boxes of paperwork and put everything together as an organized office.

Marvel and Clark worked together until Marvel died in 2016.

“I was devastated,” said Clark. “He was my right-hand man, and he was pastor to all of Salisbury’s homeless.”

Collaboration is crucial to HOPE’s mission. Among the many agencies Clark works with are the city of Salisbury’s Homeless Outreach Team, or HOT; the SWIFT team at TidalHealth and Wicomico County’s Community Outreach and Action Team, or COAT, all of whom work together to cut down on “frequent flyers” at the emergency room. HOPE also works with Walter Davidson, Director of the Community Emergency Shelter Project.

“This year CESP will be at the Langeler Building for the entire season, January-March,” Clark said.

How HOPE came about

Back in 1971, after growing up in the Salisbury area, Donna Clark graduated from nursing school. This was in Washington, D.C., where she also met her husband. For two years they traveled together across the country, living in a Ford Econoline van.

Eventually they ended up back in the Salisbury area and Clark got her first job at TidalHealth Peninsula Regional, known then as Peninsula General Hospital Medical Center. She worked in the Intensive Care Unit, a member of a group of nurses who became the first in our area trained in shock-trauma.

“I got tired of helping people out of this world,” Clark said. She left the hospital and went to work at an ob-gyn office, a position she held for about 22 years. During that time she established relationships with area physicians and gained their respect.

In 1997, she was invited by the Rev. Marsha Carpenter to provide health screenings and education at Grace United Methodist Church, one Saturday each month. It wasn’t long before she was spending all her Saturdays taking blood pressures and offering health education to people who visited God’s Kitchen, a ministry of Salisbury Urban Ministries, a ministry of several United Methodist churches in the Salisbury area.

This planted the seeds of Clark’s ministry as she became aware of the need for advocacy on behalf of the homeless and marginalized population in Salisbury. That same year – 1997 — Clark was trained as a parish nurse. Parish nurses are usually employed by a church to focus on parishioners, provide education, emotional and physical support, and social work services.

Change of heart and mindset

“Nurses typically have this idea that they are going to ‘fix’ their patients,” Clark said, “but a parish nurse’s mindset is ‘I’m going to walk beside you and help you get past this.’ It’s an actual nursing specialty, and it’s not denominational. I went to a retreat, and it was one of the hardest things I ever went through. They bring out your inner struggles in order to teach you how to help others get through their darker struggles.”

Clark became Salisbury Urban Ministry’s parish nurse.

“At this point those doctors I had come to know began having to dodge me in the grocery store,” she said, “because I was always hitting them up for free care for a client.”

Clark said people who were receiving radiation treatment for oral cancers would reach a point where the radiation was destroying their teeth and they would need to have their teeth removed. Few of them had insurance that would cover this procedure. Clark would try to find money to have their teeth removed so they could continue to receive their cancer treatments.

That’s when she met Bill Fritz, who was a social worker in the area.

“He educated me about the extent of the homeless situation,” she said. “He showed me the enormity of the situation, and back then there were virtually no services to help them.”

There was only one shelter in Salisbury, the Christian Shelter, at that time – in the early 2000s. There was no medical assistance back then. Fritz opened Clark’s eyes to the need for identification documentation, birth certificates and Social Security cards.

“I had no income to draw from,” Clark said. “I had to beg, borrow and steal to get money for this.”

Clark networked, stuck to it and got the word out. She did this part-time and without pay until she got her first grant in 2003 from Quality Health Foundation, now known as Qlarent.

In 2004 Clark became a certified parish nurse.

“It was a mind-changing experience,” she said. “I have used those skills in the work we are doing today.”

In 2007, Clark realized there were needs in the community that she would not be able to meet while working with Salisbury Urban Ministries, and she left to create her own nonprofit — HOPE. In 2008, HOPE moved into the basement of Wicomico Presbyterian Church.

As your community newspaper, we are committed to making Salisbury a better place. You can help support our mission by making a voluntary contribution to the newspaper.