Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: Tacoma Urban Grace Foot Clinic meets a need and helps build community

The volunteers who make and serve the inconspicuously named Community Breakfast every Sunday at downtown Tacoma’s Urban Grace Church start preparing for the meal as early as 5 a.m.

It has been this way for the past 20 years.

The menu, as always, includes heaping helpings of eggs, sausage and grits.

One of the key people behind the Community Breakfast is well-known retired educator Willie Stewart, a native Texan who was the first black high school principal in Tacoma. He told me a total of 252 homeless and struggling locals enjoyed last Sunday’s offerings. It was an average turnout.

But food isn’t the only thing they came for.

In a room to the side of the main dining hall, a handful of current and future graduates of the University of Washington’s MedEx physician assistant program sit on small blue stools in front of folding chairs and warm tubs of soapy water.

By 8:45 a.m., when I arrive, nearly every chair is taken.

The people sitting in the chairs — ranging from children to senior citizens — came for the breakfast, but stayed for the MedEx Tacoma Urban Grace Foot Clinic. On the second Sunday of every month, the clinic provides basic foot care and health screenings to anyone interested.

That means a whole lot of feet get washed, a whole lot of nails get trimmed, and — perhaps most importantly — a whole lot of all-too-often ignored people get much-needed one-on-one attention.

“One of the most important services we provide, outside of the actual nail care and the actual hands on feet, is the chance to have a conversation with some of these folks. Because some of them are the most overlooked people in the community,” Mike Carter tells me between clients. “We hear some amazing stories.”

The MedEx physician assistant program is a part of the University of Washington School of Medicine, and it opened its Tacoma campus at UWT in 2013. Carter is a graduate, as a student in the program’s first Tacoma class, helped found the Urban Grace Foot Clinic in 2014.

These days the clinic serves an average of 15 to 25 people every month, with care ranging from general foot and nail health needs to treatment of pressure ulcers, fungal problems and many other maladies that tend to go along with homelessness. Student donations, averaging $350 a month, provide free clean socks and other foot care necessities.

“This climate doesn’t bode well for dry feet, homeless or not,” UWT MedEx physician assistant program site director Vanessa Bester, who helps run the MedEx Tacoma Urban Grace Foot Clinic, explains of the need. “They don’t have dry socks, they don’t have good shoes. Wet feet basically get worn down because of ill-fitting shoes.”

Bester says when the clinic was started in 2014, the goal was not just to create a service for Tacoma’s homeless population, but to forge a relationship between the upstart program and the community. She tells me it allows clients to “interact with medical providers in a much less formal setting,” and provides students with a reminder “of what they’re going to be doing when they finally make it through the program.”

Two years later, it seems to be working

“The nature of the physician assistant profession has always been to provide care to the underserved demographic, and we can’t imagine a more deserving community than right here in town in Tacoma where we all live and learn,” says Carter, who is a practicing physician assistant at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle.

“Students sometimes lose sight of why they want to be here,” Bester says, explaining that volunteering at the foot clinic often “recharges their batteries.”

“I thought it was quite nice, although I feel kind of embarrassed. My feet were rather ticklish. They’ve always been that way,” Chance Miller, a 38-year-old homeless man, tells me after visiting the clinic for the first time.

Miller, who is staying at the new Nativity House at night, wears a Tacoma Community College ID badge and tells me that despite being homeless he’s currently working toward becoming a nurse.

“It’s nice to know that someone is willing to take the time out of their busy schedule, especially on a day off like Sunday, just to come and help us out a little bit. It means the world to me,” Miller says. “I can’t speak for everybody, but I’m just glad stuff like this exists.”

Lamar Rowlette, a 28-year-old homeless man who visited the foot clinic for a second time last Sunday, agrees.

“It’s the little things that count,” Rowlette tells me before packing up his new socks and heading out the door and into the morning.