Growing up the daughter of a disabled coal miner and "sticking out like a sore thumb" as a scholarship student at Transylvania University, Heather Norfleet has a heart for the underdog.
And she brings that heart to her work as a nurse practitioner at the Hope Center health clinic.
Norfleet, 36, said growing up poor helped her to know what it feels like to "not have the access to what you need."
That is why Norfleet thinks she relates to homeless patients. Too often, the people who live on society's fringe become invisible. People don't speak to them. People avoid eye contact.
"I think it is important to these guys to show them that somebody sees them," said Norfleet, who makes it a point to shake each patient's hand or pat him on the shoulder. "They are human beings and they deserve our respect. They are somebody's dad, a brother, somebody's child."
Norfleet began her job at the clinic, officially called the Dr. Gordon Hyde Hope Health Clinic, in the spring.
The clinic is a collaborative effort, with the Hope Center providing the space and HealthFirst Bluegrass paying for the staff and supplies through a $500,000 federal grant, according to Dr. Deborah Stanley, HealthFirst medical director.
Until spring 2012, the University of Kentucky College of Nursing had provided the staff. When that relationship ended, Stanley set out to try to find a nurse practitioner to fill the void.
She looked for more than a year until she found Norfleet.
"It took us a long, long time to find somebody to do the work," Stanley said.
Norfleet, Stanley said, "is a very good fit."
For Norfleet, working at the Hope Center clinic is, in a way, like coming home. As a student at Transy, she volunteered there from 1996 to 2000.
"I have always wanted to be a nurse, even when I was itty-bitty," said the Leslie County native.
Her career leaning was reinforced when she had to be hospitalized at 13 because of a cancer scare. She was in awe of the nurses who cared for her.
"You pushed the call button, and they were there," she said. "I just thought it was wonderful to be that to somebody."
Janice James, the Hope Center's executive director, said a free health clinic has been in operation since 1993; it was renovated and expanded in 2013.
Norfleet said the health needs of the homeless are many; the wear and tear of always living outside is punishing, she said. But many of her patients also deal with high blood pressure, lack of proper nutrition, arthritis, diabetes and addiction. Giving them basic health care can set the stage for them to rebuild their lives.
Norfleet's resources are limited, and sometimes she worries about her patients.
"Those are the ones you go home and pray for," she said.
Stanley said Norfleet works one full shift at the clinic and three half-days. But she hopes those hours will expand as more clinic clients become patients and people living in the cities' other shelters, such the Salvation Army's, become aware that they may be seen at the clinic.
"We serve anyone who is homeless," she said.
Mary Meehan: (859) 231-3261. Twitter: @bgmoms. Blog: BluegrassMoms.com.