Willa Carson Center celebrates 22 years of service in North Greenwood with its Dec. 7 annual banquet

Willa Livingston Carson passed away in 2006 at the age of 80

By J.A. Jones, Staff Writer

CLEARWATER – While the North Greenwood area of Clearwater has long-been one of the highest poverty areas in Pinellas County, a health center right in the middle of the community has provided free health care services to the uninsured and low-income for more than two decades.

Now located in the signature red-orange building located at 1108 N Martin Luther King Jr. Ave., the Willa Carson Center for Health and Wellness, is preparing to celebrate its annual banquet on Saturday, Dec. 7.

The award-winning health clinic, long recognized as a vital community asset, was conceived by Willa Livingston Carson, an African-American nurse born in St. Pete in 1926. Carson, who moved to New York City after marrying husband Ernest, earned her practical nursing license and working for years in the health care industry in New York and Baltimore.

She returned to Florida in 1972, earned her nursing degree from St. Petersburg Junior College and a Master’s in Nursing from St. Leo College. Retiring in Clearwater, she organized a Black Nurses Association in the area and established Friends of Nursing to raise money for loans and grants to student nurses at SPJC.

Carson wasn’t content to remain a retiree and soon found herself assembling a team of community volunteers and advocates who would help her breathe life into a new dream.

Mary-Ann Young, who started at the center in 1998 as a volunteer and worked alongside Carson until her death, became the center director in 2013.

“The center has been a very positive focal point for the community. It was the vision of Mrs. Carson in the late 90s. She was very determined and forceful about getting some medical help for the community,” said Young. “She was concerned about the disparity of health care that was provided and available.”

Carson would share a story of an African American resident in need of care who died of a heart attack at a bus stop and how that inspired her to bring free, culturally sensitive, and accessible health care to the heart of North Greenwood’s African American community. Her vision was to provide locally-based care for uninsured families, who often used the emergency room for primary care.

Her drive led her to meet with representatives from the Morton Plant Hospital, Clearwater Housing Authority, Zoning Boards, community members, doctors and nurses to develop a plan for creating a health center.

Two apartments at 1001 North Greenwood encompassing 2,000 square feet underwent renovations with the assistance of the Housing Authority and Morton Plant/Mease Hospital. In 1997 the Greenwood Community Health Resources Center opened as a not-for-profit health care clinic.

Long-time board member Annette Faison said that the center also “began as an idea to provide health education to nurses who provided health services to those in need.” Carson served as both as the center’s administrator and nurse, initially providing essential services including free blood pressure screenings and treating common colds and minor symptoms.

But soon after the opening of the Greenwood Community Health Resources Center, Carson set her eyes a larger space, petitioning the Florida Legislature for $300,000 to build a facility on city-owned Brownfield property.

According to Faison, “She was able to do this with the help of the Brownsfield Project that provided the land from an old gasoline station, with the help of local and state legislators, one of whom was Senator Jack Lavala.” The city agreed to lease the site to the center for one dollar a year for the next 30 years

Primary objectives for Brownfield’s projects were to improve quality of life in a community, address environmental justice issues, and provide community economic enhancement through increased capital investment. Federal HUD Community Development Block Grants for the demolition of the previous structure were also awarded.

The center officially opened on Jan. 7, 2001. Among her many awards, Carson received the Liberty Bell Award for outstanding community service, the Key to the City of Clearwater, as well as awards from the Unified Board of Pinellas County, and Mt Carmel Baptist Church’s Medical Arts Appreciation Award.

The center’s name was changed to the Willa Carson Health Resource Center in March 2006 to honor Mrs. Carson, who passed away a week later at the age of 80.

In his tribute to the Florida House of Representatives after Carson’s passing in 2006, Hon. Michael Bilirakis stated that Carson “wanted the Center to be about helping others, not personal glorification. Her generosity will be reflected on the faces of the countless people that she has helped.”

In 2011, the center became the Willa Carson Health and Wellness Center, with a stated mission “to provide culturally sensitive quality healthcare in a friendly environment and the Vision emphasis is: A healthy community where quality healthcare is accessible to all.”

In its 22 years, the center has served tens of thousands of under-served patients in Pinellas County, with 30 percent coming from outside of the North Greenwood Community.  Focusing on non-emergency primary health care, volunteer doctors and nurses at the center have treated patients suffering from diabetes, hypertension, hypercholesterolemia, asthma and other chronic illnesses.

The Clearwater/Largo Chapter of the National Black Nurses Association also continues to provide free-to-the-public monthly education classes and a community outreach program.

Over the years, the center’s availability for non-emergency treatment has saved millions of dollars in costs for the region’s emergency rooms – meeting one of Carson’s initial goals: opening a center where residents would not have to travel out of the area to wait in emergency rooms for hours for minor treatment.

Looking forward, current board director Kimberley Nunn-Crawford said the center is on a mission to recruit more volunteer doctors and believes the location still provides important resources and fills gaps for the uninsured and low-income.

“There are people who get discharged from the hospital, and their instructions might be, ‘you need to follow-up with a doctor in two days,'” stated Nunn-Crawford. “But we may not have a doctor until next Thursday.” With Florida’s rejection of Medicaid expansion, leaving many still uninsured, clinics like the Willa Carson remain a vital part of community health services.

To learn more about the Willa Carson Center for Health and Wellness, to volunteer, or to attend the upcoming Dec. 7 Annual Banquet at the Clearwater Country Club, visit www.willacarson.org, or call 727-467-9411.

To reach J.A. Jones, email jjones@theweeklychallenger.com

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