Nestled in the forested foothills of Shasta County, a homegrown health center offers counseling and coping skills to teens and adults dealing with the isolation of living in this remote region. For nearly three decades local healthcare providers have tended to the injuries and illnesses of their patients. But more than that, they offer the healing and hope that helps weave together the fabric of community which 155 people call home.
"Because we're all in this together. Them is us, and us is them here. That's the way it is at Hill Country." - Lynn Dorroh, Director of Hill Country
Health and Wellness Center
"There's lots of water, beautiful waterfalls," said Lynn Dorroh, director of the clinic. "Most people live on dirt roads. Some live very remotely." Dorroh moved to the area 30 years ago, and understands the challenges of helping people with life-altering problems like unemployment, obesity, mental illness and unstable housing.
"It's like a fabric that has a lot of holes in it, and if somebody lives in one of those holes, they can be extraordinarily isolated. I mean kind of isolated beyond what you can even imagine," Dorroh said. "So being healthy takes a higher degree of self awareness here than it might in an environment that had more resources in it."
Creating a "healing place"
Dorroh and a few friends set out to create what they thought of as a "healing place" for the area, so they started the clinic in the mid-1980s. The clinic has burnt down and been rebuilt and is now one of the most modern-looking buildings on this 50-mile stretch of Highway 299. It serves people from as far away as Redding, which is 30 miles to the west, and remote areas of eastern Shasta County.
The quality of the facility in a largely undeveloped area puzzled one out-of-town official. "He was having a real problem with how pretty the building was," Dorroh said. "He said, 'why would you want to do this kind of building for poor people.' He actually said that! And we said, 'well, because we're all in this together. Them is us, and us is them here. That's the way it is at Hill Country.'"
The clinic has grown into Hill Country Health and Wellness Center. It has a commercial kitchen which hosts cooking classes and a lunch cafeteria during the week. There's also a library, special event room and a walking trail. A community radio station and karate classes are also part of the diverse offerings at the facility.
"The focus really has been from the beginning on a much more comprehensive approach to health care that includes things like jobs, access to education and transportation, and healthy beginnings for children and good support in your teenage years," she said.
Isolation brings challenges
Dorroh points out that living in such an isolated area can pose psychological challenges. The suicide rate is twice the state average, and the death rate from drug use among the highest in California. The clinic started a program called "Circle of Friends" which provides social activities for those with mental illness in the tiny town of Burney, 22 miles to the east.
Corrin Sherbundy, who has struggled with mental illness and was treated at Hill Country, now works at Circle of Friends. She was helping with "little Reno Day" recently, where a couple dozen people come together for dice and card games.
"You can walk in and you don't have to be anything other than what you are," Sherbundy said. "You don't have to put on a face that you're well today. You don't have to pretend you're normal. You can just be yourself. Be who you are, and you are accepted for exactly that."
"You can just be yourself.
Be who you are, and
you are accepted for that."
Corrin Sherbundy, Circle of Friends
Coming together for fun and socializing with others has helped Patricia, a twice-weekly regular at the center. Patricia lives alone and has a bipolar disorder. "I haven't been depressed for over a year," she said. "It keeps me out of any mental health hospitals, and it keeps me independent and keeps me out of my home sometimes. Can't stay in your home all the time," she laughs. "It keeps me happy. I have found happiness here."
Before taking over as director at Hill Country, Dorroh was a therapist at the clinic. That's when she realized the importance of providing for the social needs of the mental health patients, as well as their medical conditions.
"Our medical providers were seeing the same people over and over and over again. Not because they had an urgent medical need that only a doctor a nurse practitioner could fix, but because that patient really wanted to come in because that medical provider was the only social supportive contact that they had in their lives," Dorroh said.
She said the Circle of Friends serves 150 people with an average cost of $1,000 per patient, adding that the investment has done more than reduce unnecessary medical visits. "It has absolutely saved peoples' lives. It's prevented suicides. It's begun the creation of a network that isn't just this center with that telephone number, but its people having each others' telephone numbers. People who might have otherwise been utterly isolated."
Teen center offers hope and alternatives
More than half of Hill Country's patients live in poverty. For teens in this rural spot, the combination of remote location and lack of resources translates into few activities and few opportunities. Seeing this, Hill Country created a teen center.
The center is run by Natalie Jacobs, who said the goal is to show young people that more alternatives and opportunities exist than they may realize. "The hope is to build a healthier kid," Jacobs said. "To enable them to go to college, talk about grants and scholarships and give them that option, because a lot of them are like, college is like, pppphhhhh. There's no way. Nobody talks college language at home. For some of them, nobody even talks a job that would be legitimate as far as paying taxes."
"The hope is to build a healthier kid."
Natalie Jacobs, Hill Country Teen Center
According to Jacobs, the majority of kids in Round Mountain have a 40-minute bus ride to school, which leaves no time for after-school clubs and sports. The teen center gives them a place to do homework, get a snack and be with friends. "That safe place creates...good roots. It's like a good crowd to hang out with," she said. "That in itself prevents addictions, prevents depression, just sparks a lot of interest that might not have been there."
A youth advisory board meets monthly to help teens develop leadership skills and discuss ways to become more employable. It also organizes community service projects, fund raisers and social events.
Sherbundy's daughter Ashley is on the advisory board. She comes to the teen center often and was hired to work in the clinic's medical records office. "Being able to be on a board and have what I'm saying count towards something really gave me a lot more confidence in high school and throughout my life. That's what the teen center's about is just, opportunity," she said.
Relationships breed success
Other teens from the center also work at Hill Country, but attendance fluctuates and the teen program will soon lose funding. Director Dorroh said the economic crisis of recent years has forced the clinic to be smarter about financial sustainability. She said success at the clinic is measured by the health of their patients.
"Our diabetic patients are in better shape than the state of California in general, and in quite a bit better shape than the nation. Our patients with serious mental illness are in extraordinarily better shape cardiovascularlry than the typical patient in California or in the nation. A hundred percent of our patients with asthma are in control," Dorroh said.
"Don't get me wrong. It's not like we live in a little Utopia here or that all of our patients are taking the challenge up and changing their lives."
She said the remote location contributes to Hill Country's success, as there are no similar services for miles and in such remote areas a little money goes a long way. She admits that even in a small town it's not easy to get people to take charge of their health.
"Don't get me wrong. It's not like we live in a little Utopia here or that all of our patients are taking the challenge up and changing their lives," she said. "But more and more are, and it's a thing that builds momentum, so the more success that people see around them, the more they think that maybe they could take that on as well."
Dorroh said that relationship building is at the heart of the wellness center, and that she hopes those connections will help keep the community healthy in years to come.