When she was 12 years old, Laura Polak traveled with her father, Paul Polak, to a refugee camp in Somalia. Her father is a Czech holocaust survivor and a world-renowned entrepreneur who creates for-profit solutions to help combat Third World poverty. It was the first of many trips she took with her father, and it left a deep impression that has guided her work as a chiropractor and holistic healer.
"I have my life's purpose," Polak says. "Service—this is my life's work."
She learned a lesson in the refugee camp, that no matter how well-intentioned, all charitable work must start with the members of the community being served, rather than having something bestowed upon them without their input.
With that in mind, 18 months ago Polak sought to create a holistic-medicine clinic for low-income and underserved communities in Sonoma County. While massage and chiropractics are standard for the middle- and upper-class, the services are often out of reach for the poor.
She partnered with Burbank Housing, a nonprofit affordable-housing provider that serves about 10,000 low-income families in Sonoma County, and started a pilot program to see if residents wanted the kind of services she hoped to provide: chiropractics, massage therapy, acupuncture and herbal medicine. People were indeed interested, and her services are now in great demand.
Polak holds her Community Holistic Clinic once a week in the community center at Colgan Meadows, a Burbank Housing apartment complex in western Santa Rosa; patients are welcome from throughout the county.
Though patients were slow at first to embrace Polak and her crew of volunteer practitioners—especially their acupuncture needles—appointments now book up weeks in advance.
"Finally people are starting to bring me their babies," Polak says.
Every Friday, Colgan Meadows' community center is transformed into a pop-up clinic of sorts. The kitchen is given over to acupuncture treatment, and a row of four beds is set up in the meeting room for chiropractic patients. The main hall, which hosts birthday parties and other tenant events on weekends, is where the check-in table and herbal medicine provider sets up shop. Given the close proximity the healers work in, it's easy for them to cross-refer each other's patients. Those with more serious conditions that require a primary-care physician are directed elsewhere.
The clinic only serves those who earn $30,000 or less. Most patients are Latino. Nearly 60 percent earn between $16,000 and $30,000 a year; 25 percent make $16,000 or less, well below national poverty levels.
"I've always believed in public health," says Giron Levenbach, an acupuncturist who volunteers at the clinic. "Natural health can be kind of elitist, but I prefer to treat people who need it most."
He founded a free clinic in South Africa that treated victims of civil wars from the Congo and Zimbabwe suffering from PTSD. At the Friday clinic, he treats patients who have depression, anxiety and chronic pain.
Twenty-something Isabel Torres drives from Windsor for acupuncture and chiropractic treatments to help her with her arthritis. Before she started coming to the Friday clinic, she didn't do anything for her pain. "I'm so thankful for them because they give of their time," she says.
On her visit last week, Guerneville's Pegalee Benda came out of the chiropractic room with a smile on her face and did a little jig. "You're gonna feel better," she said to those waiting to be seen.
"This has been one of the most valuable things that has happened to me in terms of my health in many years," Benda said. "I walk in and I have pain and I leave and it's tolerable."
Benda suffers from Lyme disease and says her primary-care doctors have not been able to help her. "They don't listen and they don't go to the source." Without the clinic, she couldn't get the help she needs because of the cost.
Holistic medicine is meant to treat the whole patient on a systemic level rather than focusing on individual symptoms, as is common in Western medicine. It's a worthy goal, but in spite of its efforts of inclusiveness, holistic care often serves a narrow clientele because of its cost. Insurance often doesn't cover the kind of alternative therapies Polak provides at her Sebastopol clinic, Radiant Health. As a result, many of her patients are well-to-do and can afford the out-of-pocket expenses.
But just because low-income people can't afford the services doesn't mean they are unaware of them. For many immigrants, alternative medicine is traditional and affordable medicine in the countries they come from.
"That's what people in poverty do," says Arcelia Moreno, community services coordinator for Burbank Housing. It's only when they come to the United States that these approaches become out of reach. Residents sometimes pass on their experieces to their providers, she says.
"They'll remind them that they already know a lot about what their grandparents and ancestors used to do," Moreno says. "That's why what [Laura Polak] offers is such a great opportunity."
In addition to providing the space for the clinic, Burbank Housing also offers a small amount of funding and administrative staff. The service is part of a larger recognition within the affordable-housing industry that residents need more than housing. "We noticed putting a roof over people's heads isn't enough," Moreno says.
Burbank Housing also offers after-school programs, physical fitness activities, literacy classes, mental-health services and financial literacy programs sponsored by the Redwood Credit Union.
There are other low-cost clinics in the North Bay, but they have long waiting lists. In spite of the obvious need, Polak says she's been advised to stop working at the clinic because she's losing money, as it takes time away from her for-profit practice in Sebastopol.
"I can't get funding, and I'm feeling a little frustrated," she says.
Polak dreams of opening a holistic health center at the future site of Andy's Unity Park in Santa Rosa's Moorland neighborhood, where the need is great. She'd like to be able to raise $120,000 to pay the practitioners, whom she's always recruiting for the clinic. (She's especially looking for Spanish speakers.) For now, there's a can on the check-in desk with a sliding scale of $5–$50.
But Polak is not likely to give up on the clinic.
"I have to do it," she says. "This is what I was raised with."