St. Petersburg Free Clinic, Going Strong After 50 Years

When Jennifer Yeagley assumed the role of CEO at the St. Petersburg Free Clinic at the beginning of March, she had no idea she would be in the trenches fighting the financial fallout from the coronavirus less than a month later.

In the beginning of her tenure as CEO, a busy day at the Free Clinic’s food panty was providing groceries for 200 families and individuals. By the first week of April, 700 families and individuals a day had become the new normal. “[On Good Friday,] we had a line of cars three blocks long the better part of the day,” said Yeagley.

Previously, the food pantry was set up like a grocery store where food-insecure people were able to pick the items they wanted. Once the crisis hit and more and more people were laid off from work, the process of providing food evolved to accommodate the constantly changing situation. First, the pantry was moved outdoors, then the food was pre-packaged, and finally the set-up was organized to become a drive-through.

Food pantry safety procedures were updated for the protection of the staff, volunteers, and clients. Social distancing was instituted, and the combined staff and volunteers working at the food bank were reduced to 10 people.

The Free Clinic has its own food warehouse, the Jared S. Hechtkopf Community Food Bank that services 60 partner food banks throughout Pinellas County. “We are able to purchase bulk food for pennies on the dollar,” said Yeagley.

In addition to the food pantry, the Free Clinic provides free health services for the uninsured which includes primary medical care, dental care, and an in-house pharmacy so clients can get their prescriptions.

The other component of the Free Clinic’s efforts to provide help and hope to families and individuals in need is sheltering. Three separate shelters provide interim housing for men, women, and families respectively. The men’s shelter and women’s shelter provide housing for people recovering from addiction. The shelter for families reached capacity within days of the current COVID-19 crisis.

Jennifer Yeagley, CEO, on the job.

“Usually, we give families 30 days [to find alternate housing], but we have promised the families there now that they can stay as long as the pandemic warrants,” said Yeagley.

Yeagley has a solid 20-year background in running community-based nonprofits. Prior to joining the St. Petersburg Free Clinic, Yeagley served as vice president for administrative and strategic operations at Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services in Clearwater, and before that she was the executive director for Community Tampa Bay. She has a master’s degree in literature from Texas State University and is a graduate of the Leadership Tampa Class of 2018.

Although the Free Clinic’s board of directors selected Yeagley after a national search, she is, in her own words, a local. She has lived in Tampa Bay for the last seven years.

Prior to her time in Florida, Yeagley served in executive capacities for human services organizations in Texas and California. Yeagley officially became the CEO for St. Petersburg Free Clinic on February 28, 2020 where she succeeded Interim CEO Michael O. Bice.

When Yeagley took the reins, the Free Clinic had 60 employees on staff and 400 volunteers. According to the organization’s records, the volunteers put in 33,000 hours in 2018 or “the equivalent of about 17 full time employees.”

“Eighty-three percent of our volunteers have been over the age of 60,” said Yeagley.  COVID-19 changed everything. As the most vulnerable group, that high percentage of over-the-age-of-60 volunteers needed to be taken out of harm’s way. “We needed to incorporate our volunteers’ safety in the process.”

“I know the Free Clinic has always had a good number of volunteers from the Old Northeast area,” said Yeagley.

Yeagley commended six neighbors from the Old Northeast and vicinity (Crescent Lake, Crescent Heights, Snell Isle, Northeast Park, Shore Acres, and Venetian Isles) who are currently volunteering at the Free Clinic. Deborah Factor has been volunteering the longest at 16 years. Jan Miller has been volunteering for a year-and-a-half, Marcy Mortimer for two years, Glenn Mosby for three years, Timothy Mulligan for three years (We Help Bike Program), and Elizabeth Skidmore for two years.

Healthy volunteers with no underlying conditions are needed. Anyone interested in volunteering should go online to the Free Clinic’s website at Training can’t be held in groups due to social distancing requirements, so virtual training is being developed for prospective volunteers to take online. The Free Clinic is accepting food donations and financial contributions via the website as well.

The Free Clinic was originally founded in 1970 as a free medical clinic. It grew and expanded its services over the years. When families and individuals fell through the cracks of governmental assistance, the Free Clinic has been there to help.

Today the Free Clinic operates eight programs: The Jared S. Hechtkopf Community Food Bank, We Help Services & Food Pantry, the Health Center, the Dental Clinic, Health Education Program, Virginia & David Baldwin Women’s Residence, the Men’s Residence, and the Family Residence.

“We’ve shifted our operation to a walk-up or drive through food pantry. We’re serving anyone who needs help. So far, we’ve seen a 300 percent jump in the need for our services, with many new families who had never needed to access our services before. People have lost jobs and lost insurance, and they’re worried about being able to find a new job, especially if they are an older worker.”
– Shaina Bent, Director of Food Programs, St. Petersburg Free Clinic

Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, the Free Clinic had to put its gala scheduled for April 4th on hold. Yeagley said the Free Clinic will reschedule the gala event “when the time is right.” According to Yeagley, even if the right time doesn’t happen, the Free Clinic may hold smaller events. The Free Clinic will not let their golden anniversary pass without acknowledging it. “We need to honor the legacy of our founders to serve our community,” said Yeagley.

With a vast increase in demand, Yeagley is prepared for the crisis to continue for an extended period. “We [the Free Clinic] are seeing a real shift to serving people who never needed services before.” These are the unseen people who live one paycheck away from homelessness and/or food insecurity.

Yeagley’s positive attitude stands out. She has a calm pleasant voice and a caring demeanor. When others in her position might be inclined to fold under pressure at the immense scope of the situation, she approaches every new challenge with optimism and skill.

It is the team that makes it all happen, according to Yeagley. She respects her staff as an incredible, hardworking, flexible, talented group of people. The volunteers are dedicated. She commends the board of directors for their support to both her and her team. Her family supports her every step of the way.

Volunteers Lisette and Susan at the Free Clinic Drive-Thru Pantry.

The way the community has come together in these unprecedented circumstances has been amazing to Yeagley. “I am so grateful for the support of the community at this challenging time. It’s been inspiring to see, and will continue to be next week, next month, next year, and in the next 50 years.”