Tom Eblen: Baby Health Service celebrates 100 years of caring for children

Herald-Leader ColumnistMay 11, 2014 

  • IF YOU GO

    Baby Health Service's 100th anniversary celebration

    When: 6 p.m., May 31

    Where: Keeneland

    Cost: $125

    More information: Babyhealthlexington.org, (859) 278-1781

Baby Health Service has spent a century caring for some of Central Kentucky's most vulnerable residents — and outgrowing its name.

A group of Lexington women started the Baby Milk Supply Association in 1914 to provide free milk to infants and toddlers of poor families, regardless of race. But Margaret Lynch, the first chief nurse, was soon making thousands of home visits and overseeing a free weekly clinic with volunteer doctors in an old downtown house.

The clinic was seeing 1,600 children a year by 1928 and 5,800 a year by 1957. The charity's mission had grown so far beyond "milk supply" that the name was changed to Baby Health Service in 1959.

That name only begins to cover the scope of the organization that will celebrate its 100th anniversary May 31 with a fundraising dinner at Keeneland.

"The staying power of Baby Health speaks volumes, that we have been around for 100 years providing a service that is unique in our community," said Kathleen Eastland, who chairs the organization's board. "We can't find another service quite like this in the United States."

America's social safety net for low-income families has expanded over the years, most recently with the Affordable Care Act, but there are many children and teens who fall between the cracks. They include many refugees and immigrants.

Baby Health Service tries to fill those health care gaps. Last year, the organization served about 2,100 young people, from infants through age 17. Patients' families must be low-income and not covered by private or government health insurance.

"You have a lot of people in between," said Dr. Tom Young, a 30-year volunteer pediatrician at Baby Health who is now the organization's chief executive. "We're kind of a safety valve."

Working on a shoestring budget, the mostly volunteer organization provides an impressive array of health services from basement space in an old office building beside Saint Joseph Hospital on Harrodsburg Road.

A small paid nursing staff and eight regular volunteer doctors have a clinic each weekday morning to treat sick children and do well-child exams. Several physician specialists donate their services when needed. Through various arrangements, the clinic also can provide free X-rays, lab tests and medications.

Baby Health's 59 board members — all of whom are women —volunteer at least 12 two-hour shifts each year to do all of the clerical work and patient scheduling.

"It's not written in the bylaws 'no men,' but in my years on the board, it's been all women," said Eastland, whose mother was on the board before her. "I think it would be interesting to see if any men would break the barrier."

Baby Health's offices have a stash of clothing for children and adults and a book giveaway and lending program. The book program was started by a board member's daughter and has been supported by the University of Kentucky law school.

Donations after the death of a board member allowed Baby Health to restart a monthly dental clinic in January with help from volunteer dentists and dental hygiene students at Blue Grass Community and Technical College.

Through a partnership with Save-a-Lot Food Stores, patients' families can get $10 monthly vouchers for fresh fruits and vegetables. Baby Health nurses and volunteers do a lot of health education with families, including a fitness program for children and teens identified as in need of physical activity.

Baby Health hopes to start a telephone triage service soon, staffed by on-call nurses, to advise patients after hours so they don't just go to a hospital emergency rooms.

Thanks to all of the donated time and services, Baby Health's annual budget is only $191,000, Eastland said. The organization gets no federal funding, and this year it didn't receive city support as it has in the past. Most of its funding come from grants and donations solicited by board members.

Although Young has been with Baby Health for 30 years, the senior volunteer physician is Dr. William Underwood, who has been a regular since 1966. Young said he introduced several of the other regular volunteers to Baby Health when they were residents working under him.

"Anybody who starts here usually continues here," Young said. "That's why we go into pediatrics: to take care of kids. And the families here really appreciate what we do for them."

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: Tomeblen.bloginky.com.

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