When Leola Rodgers was in high school, she had aspirations of becoming a legal secretary, but her guidance counselor told her she could do better.
No one in Rodgers family or neighborhood had gone to college, so she didn’t think that was an option for her. With the help of her counselor, Rodgers received a scholarship to the University of Detroit, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in finance and administration and eventually got a master’s degree in public health from the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Today, Rodgers serves as the president and CEO of Syracuse Community Health Centers. She spoke about her background and the problems the centers currently face during the April installment of Syracuse Inner City Rotary chat. She’s been at her current post since January 2015 when she took over for Dr. Ruben Cowart, who founded the centers in 1978.
“My vision is to make sure that the legacy that Dr. Cowart left continues,” she said.
Syracuse Community Health Centers were established to provide medical care to those who are uninsured or underinsured, and to provide jobs to those in the community they serve. There are five primary care facilities, as well as satellite offices and school-based centers throughout Onondaga County.
In order to meet the needs of their patients, Rodgers said, the centers provide multiple services, including primary care for adults, pediatric care for children, OB-GYN services for women and dental care. This ensures that patients don’t have to travel around to different places all over the city, especially if they have trouble finding transportation in the first place.
“If they take off one more day from work, they risk losing their job. So they’re in a conundrum,” Rodgers said. “Do I take care of my kids and take care of myself or do I go to work? That’s a decision that our patients have to make every day.”
The health centers have been facing more problems recently too. To maintain funding from the federal government, the centers must report how many patients they serve over time. But with the passage of the Affordable Care Act, more people have insurance and can seek care elsewhere.
Additionally, area hospitals have an advantage when hiring medical professionals because they can offer a much higher salary than the health centers can. To offset this, SCHC offer loan repayment to those coming out of medical school, nursing school or school for social work.
Rodgers said the most lucrative way they hire, however, is by “growing their own.” The centers provide scholarships to licensed practical nurses and certified nursing assistants who work at the centers to earn a higher degree.
With the centers’ current buildings over 30 years old, Rodgers mentioned the problems associated with older facilities: small hallways and bathrooms that make it difficult for people in wheelchairs or walkers to maneuver and the possibility of asbestos. Rodgers said she hopes to move into a new building for the main site, 819 S. Salina St., within the next five years.
Even still, Rodgers realizes that one of the mainstays of poverty is lack of access to healthcare, which is why the health care centers must remain open.
“We have a lot to do, but we’re still trying to do the best we can with what we have.”
The speaker for May’s Rotary chat will be Johanna Marcure, the pastor of Grace Episcopal Church. The series happens once a month at 6 p.m., at Grace Episcopal Church, located at 819 Madison St. in Syracuse.
— Article and photo by Ashley McBride, The Stand Staff reporter