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Tajha Chappellet-Lanier here, thinking about the people we turn to when we need support with our health. For residents of the wild, winding coastline that is Big Sur, that often means the Big Sur Health Center

The nonprofit rural Health Center was founded in 1979 and has provided preventative and urgent medical care for Big Sur’s residents, workers and visitors ever since. Like any other entity on this coast, the Health Center is no stranger to disasters along the lines of wildfires, floods, road slides and more. “My husband says that I live from one crisis to the next,” executive director Sharen Carey says, wryly. “Because it has been every few years there’s a new crisis.”

But Covid is a little different. For one, it pushed the clinic to implement new in-person visit protocols, start performing Covid tests as the capacity for that emerged and, now, start vaccinations. It also, for the first time, persuaded the Health Center to experiment with telehealth phone and video visits. Carey says the clinic plans to continue offering telehealth to patients who prefer that option.

The pandemic has also impacted BSHC’s bottom line. “By all statistics reported by marketing firms, we shouldn’t even be in business at this point,” Carey says. “They’ve said that it takes a population of about 5,000 to be able to support one full-time provider.” Big Sur’s population, meanwhile, is “guesstimated” at about 2,000. In that context, it adds up that, according to fundraising materials, the nonprofit makes just 34 percent of its income from fees for service. The rest comes from donations, grants and fundraisers. “A lot of our contributions come from organizations that hold events and then give us a certain amount of money in the form of grants,” Carey says. These include the Big Sur Marathon, Big Sur Food and Wine, and more. 

Due to Covid, however, many of these events aren’t happening. The clinic’s biggest annual fundraiser, the Big Sur Foragers Festival, did happen—but virtually. That was a “fairly serious” difference, Carey says. All told, in 2020, the Health Center lost $164,000 in expected grants and donations due to the fact that the events that support these donations were canceled, Carey says. “That’s a significant part of our budget.” 

Still, Carey feels positive about the clinic’s ability to survive. As she expected BSHC had fewer small donors in 2020, but large donors were able to make up for it. BSHC also participated in Monterey County Gives! “I am always hopeful,” Carey says. “I cannot believe that it is in the stars that the Health Center should ever close and leave the Big Sur community without healthcare.”

“I had a lovely receptionist one time when I was having a crisis… she just looked at me and she said ‘Sharen, take a deep breath and remember: the Health Center has a life of its own,’” Carey laughs. “That has become my daily mantra. The Health Center has a life of its own.” 


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