30 Years of Volunteers: The Launching & Evolution of a Volunteer-Driven Free Clinic

The initial spark for Arlington Free Clinic came in 1993 when, at the urging of Dr. Archie McPherson – the new Arlington County Medical Society (ACMS) president – Dr. Joseph Backer took charge of the sub-committee focused on helping community members without insurance who needed healthcare.

Up until that point, the ACMS had kept a list of local doctors who agreed to see patients free of charge, but what they could offer – just a single visit – was quite limited, and without access to lab work or necessary follow-up care, patients would soon be on their own again.

Drawing inspiration from the small handful of free clinics that were beginning to crop up across the state, Dr. Backer and his steering committee secured free after-hours use of the hallways and nurses office of Thomas Jefferson Middle School – the Clinic’s home for its first four years; hired an Executive Director – who agreed to serve in a volunteer capacity until funds for her salary could be raised; and won a promise of free labs and diagnostics from Arlington Hospital (now VHC Health) – whose partnership and pro bono support would grow year over year for the next three decades.

In those early days of makeshift space and a reliance on pharmaceutical company samples for medications, resources were scarce. But fueled by the sheer determination of its volunteers, AFC expanded in scope and impact. In response to increasing patient numbers and needs, what began as a modest endeavor focused on primary care soon grew into a comprehensive healthcare home. Showcasing the Clinic’s adaptability and willingness to embrace new opportunities, services like specialty medicine, optometry, physical therapy, and mental healthcare were added – all thanks to volunteers.

AFC’s 30-year journey underscores the power of volunteers and the profound impact that a dedicated group of individuals can have on their community. As we celebrate the milestones achieved and the lives touched, we look to the future with the same spirit of resilience and compassion that has guided us to this point.