Dream to reality

photography by Tina Sargeant

On the corner of Lakeland Hills and Memorial Boulevards, there is an incredible treasure. The quaint yellow brick building and former John Cox Grammar School has now become home to Lakeland Volunteers in Medicine, or LVIM for short.

“Lakeland Volunteers in Medicine began as a dream of various community leaders and organizations in 1999. Led primarily by Watson Clinic physicians and the Watson Clinic Foundation, Lakeland came together to find ways to meet the healthcare challenges of the working uninsured in Lakeland. In 2000, a fundraising campaign was launched, which resulted in the dream becoming a reality. Now, 14 years later, LVIM’s vision is, “A healthier Polk County through improved access to free, high-quality outpatient healthcare for the working uninsured” (lvim.net).

“Lakeland Volunteers in Medicine is one of the largest volunteer-run clinics in the country as far as depth and breadth of service,” says Bobby Yates, president/CEO of LVIM. “We are a full-service clinic. We provide primary care, specialty care, dentistry, pharmacy, and diagnostics free of charge to people throughout Lakeland and Polk County who are working and uninsured. What LVIM can’t provide in house can be handled by a special-care coordinator who works with partners like Moffitt Cancer Center to deliver diagnostics and services to their patients.”

Since opening on Valentine’s Day 2001, Lakeland Volunteers in Medicine has cared for more than 19,000 patients that make up the nearly half a million patient visits over the past 15 years. LVIM is able to provide high-quality medical care to patients only because of the generosity of hundreds of local doctors, nurses, and community members who volunteer their time and skills every week. “Our [annual] budget is $1.4 million, but we return $5 million to $6 million of free healthcare to the community every year,” Yates says.

To ensure that the LVIM mission continues, it takes the support of Lakeland and the surrounding areas. And, every year, the greater community comes through in a lot of ways. Before the clinic opened, Yates and other local leaders were a part of a $6 million capital campaign that helped buy the building and get the work of LVIM started. For years, multiple donors and organizations like the United Way of Central Florida and the GiveWell Community Foundation have helped support the LVIM’s mission, to provide free, high-quality outpatient medical, dental, and mental-health services to the working uninsured of Polk County in a compassionate environment.

Aside from these generous donors and organizations, the entire community of Lakeland has embraced LVIM by getting involved in the Lakeland Derby, LVIM’s signature fundraising event.

For the last nine years, one week before the Kentucky Derby, 10 swanshaped paddle boats are dropped in Lake Mirror, captained by local businesses and leaders of Lakeland. Hilarity, camaraderie, and fierce competition abound as the community, dressed in their finest Derby attire, cheers these folks on. The real competition, though, rests in which team can raise the most dollars.

The Lakeland Derby has become a beloved community event and is one of Lakeland’s best-attended charity fundraiser. Aside from the Leaders of Lakeland race, there is also a Triple Crown Sponsors’ Race, food, games and activities, live music, and fireworks, making this event perfect for the whole family.

Outside of the dollars it takes to invest in the cause of caring for the physical needs of this community, it also takes the heartwarming dedication of hundreds of volunteers. “We have about 180 volunteers who serve every week,” Yates says. “So, I can tell you about what we do, but you have to see the volunteers.” And, he’s right.

Yates takes me on a tour through the old school turned health clinic, and we talk with volunteers, every one of whom is warm and welcoming. The magic and success of the LVIM story is a result of these dedicated volunteers. They provide kindness and positivity alongside a depth of patient care that is rivaled by many medical facilities that collect payment for service. Many of the volunteers we talk with have been there since the clinic opened.

Yates introduces me to Val. Val sits at the reception desk, the same spot she has since LVIM’s opening day. “I remember when the very first patient came in,” she says. “It was a lady wearing white pearls, and her name was Cassandra. We were all so excited.” And Val isn’t alone in this longevity with LVIM. Julius, a kind, older man who volunteers in the pharmacy, brags about being there since almost the very beginning. “I missed it by a month,” he chuckles. “My kids needed to be taken care of, but I’ve been here ever since March 2001.”

Julius is one of about 10 pharmacy workers who help fill prescriptions for LVIM’s patients. Most of the prescriptions are generic versions of name brands, but Julius works with a small team of pharmacists to get medications donated to LVIM’s pharmacy. As a result, each year LVIM receives an astonishing $3 million worth of brand-name prescription drugs at no cost to the clinic or the patient. “It gives you a good feeling to do something to get people back on their feet,” Julius says.


The following is an excerpt from the July 2015 issue of The Heartbeat, Lakeland Volunteers in Medicine Newsletter.


Jessie Holmes’ early life is a tragic story of loss and abandonment. Her parents were unable to care for Jessie and her brothers, and at eight years old she and her older brothers were left to fend for themselves. Jessie and her brothers were separated, and she grew up going from one foster home to another.

Jessie persevered and made a life for herself and her two sons. She worked hard for 40 years. Her most recent job was working on an assembly line at a plastic molding company. Jessie enjoyed her job and was thankful to have a steady income and health insurance.
Then the unthinkable happened. Jessie began developing painful tumors on her right hand. She could no longer perform her job, was laid off, and found herself uninsured and extremely scared.

In desperation, Jessie came to LVIM to seek treatment for her hand. About the same time, Dr. W. Chris “Kit” Duncan, dermatologist, retired from Watson Clinic and began volunteering at LVIM. Dr. Duncan performed a biopsy on Jessie’s hand as well as a lesion on the side of her head. The lesion on her head was cancerous, and Dr. Duncan performed minor surgery and removed all traces of cancer. Her hand was a different story. Jessie was diagnosed with keratoacanthoma, a rapidly growing skin cancer that can be life threatening.

Jessie was immediately referred to one of LVIM’s community partners, Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa. Her treatment plan consisted of 34 radiation treatments that she received on a daily basis from Monday through Friday for almost two months, all at no charge. Jessie was able to live at the American Cancer Society’s Hope Lodge on the Moffitt Campus during the week so she wouldn’t have to make the daily drive to Tampa.

While the battle is not over, “Jessie’s prognosis is good,” says Dr. Duncan.

Jessie is extremely grateful for all the life-saving care she has received and says, “Everyone I have seen at LVIM has done a wonderful job, and I feel truly cared for.”