Since OLE Health opened its first clinic 47 years ago, it’s become a household name in the Napa Valley.
And it keeps growing.
Today, OLE Health is the second-largest health care provider in Napa County, behind Kaiser Permanente, in terms of patients treated. It serves a quarter of county’s kids and one in six county adults.
Its new, 29,000-square-foot south Napa campus, which will begin serving patients on June 3, is one of nine facilities, including seven in Napa County and two in Fairfield. Its new south Napa campus, which hosted a ribbon-cutting Wednesday afternoon, is expected to serve 15,000 patients per year.
But OLE Health wasn’t always such a well-funded, high-profile community organization.
“The beginning was just a little room and we don’t have nothing,” said Aurelio Hurtado, a founder of OLE Health. “We just have the idea.”
The early days
OLE Health’s name comes from the Organización Latino-Americana de Liberación Económica, or OLE, a group that was founded in 1967 to advocate for stronger inclusion of Latin Americans in Napa County, said Hurtado, who was OLE’s president at the time. Hurtado wrote in a report after OLE’s first year that Latin Americans in Napa County weren’t receiving help from community organizations because, in part, of a language barrier, and lack of organization within the community.
The idea of founding a clinic for low-income and Spanish-speaking people was first floated by Placido Garcia, a farmworker and artist who had visited a clinic in Healdsburg.
“I like that, I fell in love with it,” Garcia said in documentary “La Semilla: The OLE Health Story.” “We need something like that in Napa too.”
He mentioned the Healdsburg clinic at an OLE meeting in January 1972 and members agreed it was a good idea to have something similar locally, according to a timeline of OLE Health’s history compiled by Nara Vaughn in 1997. The Rutherford-based Clinica OLE opened its doors to the public in September of 1972. Three volunteers staffed the clinic and Garcia designed its logo.
Its founders were proud. Without farmworkers, Hurtado said, there’s no Napa.
“We begin with a lot of hard work, commitment and a lot of love, amor,” Hurtado said. “We created something that was needed in the community.”
The clinic got an additional staff member and expanded into a new building in 1975, thanks to donations and state funding, according to the timeline. Clinica OLE began to open five days per week in 1977 and continued to expand in 1978.
Fighting for funding
Then came cuts from the state Health Department, a fire that destroyed Clinica OLE in 1980 and more cuts from the state Rural Health Division in 1981.
OLE was faced with a choice: close its doors “or work four times harder to keep it alive,” Hurtado said.
For a time, OLE Health closed.
“This is to inform you that Health Clinic ‘OLE’ is closing and will no longer be able to provide you with medical services,” read a letter to patients, according to the timeline. “We are sorry we can no longer serve you.”
A fundraiser underwritten by the late vintner Mary Tilden Morton helped OLE Health get closer to reopening, and St. Helena Hospital and Health Center offered the organization a generous payment plan to buy a trailer that the clinic remained in for 13 years, according to the timeline.
Things were looking up, but they weren’t easy.
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A fundraising committee formed in 1982 helped pull together enough money to keep OLE Health going, and donations from wineries, the city of St. Helena, the Town of Yountville, Queen of the Valley Hospital and Napa Valley Vintners Association began to pour in, according to the timeline. Yountville allowed OLE Health to relocate near its City Hall for free.
By 1984, OLE Health received funding for the first time from the Napa Valley Wine Auction, totaling $50,000, or 20 percent, of profits. Such hefty donations continued, and in return, staff parked cars for the event, according to the timeline.
Over the next few years, a trust fund was created for OLE Health and the clinic’s funding and services began to grow. The clinic moved out of its modular unit and began a monthly program on KVON, La Voz de la Valle, to discuss health care for Spanish speakers.
OLE Health held its first Hispanic Health Fair for 250 guests in 1990, started to receive some state dollars again and flourished thanks to the hiring of new executive director Cindy Goodale in 1991, according to the timeline. That year, OLE Health served 1,200 patients per month.
Residents raised more than $60,000 to open a St. Helena clinic in 1993, thanks in part to help from the St. Vincent de Paul Society of the Catholic Church, according to the timeline. OLE Health started working with the county to provide medical services to homeless residents that same year.
OLE Health received a combined $200,000 from Queen of the Valley and St. Joseph’s Health System to expand into Napa and its Trancas Street location, which opened in 1994, according to the timeline. The organization had grown to 12,000 visits in 1995.
Around that time, OLE Health hired its first full-time, bilingual family practice physician, and Thomas Keller, owner of The French Laundry, offered to hold an annual fundraiser for the organization, according to the timeline. OLE Health even began to serve Lake Berryessa residents, but that clinic later closed because residents preferred the Napa clinic, according to OLE Health’s website.
OLE Health opened its Pear Tree Lane clinic in 2002 and began providing dental services in 2005, according to the website. Clinic OLE became a Federally Qualified Health Center in 2005, a move that increased the clinic’s reimbursement rate, said OLE Health CEO Alicia Hardy.
Much of the organization’s transformation occurred thanks to the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, she said. OLE Health saw huge growth in use of its pediatric services. OLE Health expanded to offer pharmaceutical, optometric and nutritional services.
“There was so many more of our patients that had insurance,” Hardy said. “The additional revenue coming in allowed us to do so much more.”
By request, OLE Health opened two facilities in Fairfield in the past three years, she said. This allows the clinic to be where its patients are, since many people who work in Napa live elsewhere.
Grants and donations have continued to grow over the years, she said.
While OLE Health has expanded exponentially in recent decades, Hardy said it’s still trying to fight misconceptions. Few people realize that the organization is so large, takes private insurance and is a one-stop shop for many patient needs, she said. It even serves tourists who need medical services while on vacation.
OLE Health serves the community by keeping its workforce healthy, Hardy said. Everybody’s quality of life improves when the community, as a whole, is healthy.
“I think there’s a real recognition of how we all tie together as a community,” she said. “There’s certainly just a desire to help and help support the mission.”
That strong sense of direction and dedication to the nonprofit’s mission is something that OLE Health co-founder Hurtado says he admires in the current generation of OLE Health leadership.
He called OLE Health his “daughter” and said he’s proud to watch how she’s grown, thanks to boundless community support since the early days of the clinic. There have been more downs than ups in OLE Health’s history, but it’s stuck around. Hurtado called it a miracle.
“It’s too good to die,” he said.
Hurtado said the founders never could have dreamed that OLE Health would expand into a building as large as the south Napa clinic.
“We won’t be around too long,” he said. “But the clinic will be there for years and years.”