MARION, Va. (August 16, 2017) -- You can’t see it, but a United Methodist river runs through Marion. It starts on the east side of town at a mission that provides home repair and firewood for low-income families, then runs west about three miles to a free clinic and new school for health providers.
The three entities are connected through one United Methodist pastor, the Rev. Harry Howe. You might even say Howe is a fisherman who’s been casting a vision for new ways to help neighbors since 1988.
“The number one thing we share is a mission,” said Michael Ambrister, executive director of Mel Leaman Free Clinic, describing the clinic’s relationship with United Methodist partners. “Our connection to Project Crossroads is beneficial. Harry Howe brings a lot, himself, to the clinic.”
Howe is the founder of Project Crossroads, a 29-year-old mission that now hosts 1,000 volunteers annually to help build, repair, and heat homes in southwest Virginia. Supported with Advance funds and other donations, Project Crossroads also provides furniture, Thanksgiving meals, and emergency assistance for low-income families in four counties.
The idea for Project Crossroads came to Howe, a north Alabama native, while he was serving East Marion United Methodist Church as a pastor in the late 1980s.
“I went to visit a home where a lady had cancer and needed an upstairs bathroom,” Howe said. “It took so much out of her, was such an ordeal for her to get up and go to the bathroom. So we raised some money and we built her a bathroom.”
The bathroom project led to a summer program for area churches to help repair a few windows, roofs, porches and ramps – then evolved into a full-fledged mission. Howe eventually became a full-time missionary, raising his own salary, to serve people who “fall through the cracks” and miss out on agency assistance.
“To be honest, I’ve experienced the presence of Christ more by being with these people than from standing behind a pulpit on Sunday morning,” Howe told The Call in 2004. At the time, he was standing waist-high in a creek, rebuilding a bridge that had been washed out by a flood.
Howe was already involved in health care at that point, and his net of ministries was about to get wider.
“A lot of what we do is educate the patients about their health care as much as we can,” said Howe on a recent morning at the free clinic. He had just talked at length with a diabetic patient who presented with a bright-red, swollen foot caused by osteomyelitis, or inflammation of the bone.
At age 62, Howe is not only a pastor, he’s a physician assistant and chair of the Mel Leaman Free Clinic board. He has volunteered at the clinic since it opened in a shopping center in 2001 with a mission to serve the low-income and uninsured of Smyth County.
Last year, the free clinic stopped being a storefront operation when it relocated to a building on the Emory & Henry School of Health Sciences campus in Marion. The clinic officially partnered with United Methodist-affiliated Emory & Henry College in 2015.
“I went and walked into the free clinic for the first time and said, ‘This is unacceptable for you to be in a strip mall,’” said Scott Richards, founding chair and program director for Emory & Henry’s physician assistant studies.
Richards pursued the collaboration between Emory & Henry and the free clinic, as well as the clinic’s relocation. Last year, Emory & Henry moved its health sciences program into the old Smyth County Community Hospital, renovated for its new purpose. Marion is about 19 miles northeast of Emory & Henry’s main campus in Emory, Va.
The collaboration provides a wealth of next-door expertise for the clinic and a mission connection for students and staff, who are required to work in the free clinic, Richards said.
“Our main mission is care for the rural impoverished and under-served. We live it,” Richards said. “If students don’t work in free clinics with impoverished patients, they don’t tend to do it after graduation.”
“It’s such a win-win for the college, clinic, students and community,” said Lou Fincher, dean of Emory & Henry’s School of Health Sciences. “We’re always looking for mission-centric ways to advance.”
AVENUE FOR HEALTH CARE
Soon after Harry Howe started Project Crossroads to rehab homes in 1988, he found new ways to expand the mission.
Project Crossroad’s firewood ministry (to heat homes) was born after the ice storm of 1993, as a way to use the abundance of fallen trees. A home-ownership program through Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development was started in 1995.
Work teams from Holston Conference and beyond came to Marion to help carry out Project Crossroad’s busy mission. Harrison United Methodist in Chattanooga District and Broadway United Methodist in Maryville District were among the first, Howe said.
Howe discovered the volunteer fire department in nearby Atkins needed help, so he became trained and certified as an emergency medical technician (EMT) in 1990, a paramedic in 1995.
Then he discovered another need:
“Through the paramedic program I realized a lot people didn’t have health insurance or primary care,” Howe said. “They just waited until it got so bad, their health care was going to the ER. There needed to be another avenue for them to get health care.”
Howe was on the organizing board when the free clinic opened in 2001. With the encouragement of fellow health-care providers, the pastor began to consider taking his paramedic training to a new level.
The year 2007 was pivotal for Project Crossroads. Mark and Linda Stransky, United Methodist missionaries known as “Church and Community Workers,” arrived in Marion to work full-time with Project Crossroads.
Also in 2007, Project Crossroads moved into its pre-Civil War yellow house, a former boys’ home that has since become iconic for the mission while accommodating numerous work teams. Prior to the purchase of the rambling house on Snider Branch Road, the Project Crossroads headquarters was located in Howe’s private residence followed by an office on Main Street. Mission teams previously stayed in a farmhouse or in area churches.
With these expansions in place at Project Crossroads, Harry Howe was finally ready to enroll in Lincoln Memorial University, at age 53, to become a physician assistant.
FREE CLINIC'S IMPACT
Mel Leaman Free Clinic, named after its first executive director, is not faith-based. Yet Howe says he and others sometimes pray with their patients. “That’s something we do as we feel the need,” he said.
When Howe became certified and licensed as a physician assistant in 2013, Project Crossroads officially became a partner with the free clinic.
Mel Leaman Free Clinic – one of 50 free clinics in Virginia -- operates as a private, not-for-profit medical facility and does not receive reimbursement from patients or insurers for services. “All operating funds come from donations and grants,” said Ambrister, executive director since June 2015.
In the first half of this year, the clinic served nearly as many patients as it did throughout all of 2016, with 638 patients and 1,899 total visits. The free clinic targets the uninsured whose income is less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level, particularly the working poor, Ambrister said.
“Our partnership with the college allows us physical space and volunteers,” he said. “Those have expanded so we want to expand our number of patients.” A busy day used to be 10 to 12 patients a day. “Now 18 to 20 patients is a busy day. Twenty is our goal.”
Because billing is not an issue, health providers are able to spend as much time as they need with each patient. “That’s when patients can open up and say, ‘I don’t have food this month,’” Ambrister said. The clinic’s staff, volunteers and Project Crossroads stand ready to help
The clinic added dental hygiene services in fall 2016 through a partnership with Wytheville Community College and launched a mobile medical unit this year.
The United Methodist Board of Global Ministries recently awarded a $50,000 grant to Emory & Henry to purchase occupational and physical therapy equipment for the free clinic. "We hope to have our rehab clinic open in early September," Ambrister said.
LIFE OF A MISSIONARY
In the morning, Harry Howe might examine an infected ear at the clinic or teach a class of medical students at Emory & Henry.
In the afternoon, he might join Mark Stransky in loading and delivering firewood or setting up a rehab project for an incoming mission team.
The local media frequently features stories related to Howe or Project Crossroads – for example, the “white coat ceremony” for the first class of Emory & Henry physician assistants, or a home-gardening project sponsored by Sprouting Hope Community Garden. (Linda Stransky started the community garden in 2012.)
Not only are the town of Marion (population 6,000) and neighboring counties enriched by the work of Project Crossroads, so are congregations throughout the nation. Stransky names off churches that have sent multiple work teams from the Holston, Virginia, North Carolina, and Iowa United Methodist conferences, as well as from other denominations and states.
“When people are changed by their experience, they want to come back time after time,” Stransky says.
Both Stransky and Howe are missionaries who continue to raise money for their own salaries.
“I could make more as a physician assistant,” Howe said, “but the churches realize that I can do more as a missionary. I can’t be here and do what I do unless I have their support.”
“Growing up, I had no clue what a church as a body can do,” Stransky said. “A missionary can change the life of the church.”
PHOTOS (Top of page) Students and staff observe an ear irrigation at Mel Leaman Free Clinic. (Gallery below) 1. Harry Howe examines an ear. 2. Michael Ambrister. 3. Clinic. 4. Clinic waiting room. 5. Free coats at the clinic. 6. Harry Howe. 7. Project Crossroads house. 8. Project Crossroads firewood ministry. 9. Mark Stransky and Harry Howe deliver firewood. 10. Mark Stransky and Howard McGhee load donated furniture. 11. Emory & Henry Health Sciences. 12. Scott Richards. 13. Emory & Henry classroom.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.