The mission statement of Axis Community Health may seem simple enough, but the effort to fulfill that vital vision day in and day out remains anything but.
One of the most important nonprofit organizations in the Tri-Valley, Axis this year is celebrating its 50th anniversary of serving the region's most in-need residents -- folks who would often otherwise fall through the cracks of the mainstream health care system, primarily for financial reasons.
"More than 15,000 Tri-Valley residents are served by Axis, through services that include medical and dental care, behavioral health, a WIC nutrition program and a variety of services that extend out into the community and at local schools," longtime CEO Sue Compton, who is retiring this week, told the Weekly.
"Throughout its incredible history and evolution as a community health center, Axis has remained true to its mission of providing high quality care for all members of the community, regardless of income, language or any other factor," Compton said.
James Paxson, current chair of the Axis Board of Directors, added, "The trajectory of Axis over the last 50 years in terms of providing a fundamental community service to address the health care needs of the most vulnerable in the Tri-Valley is nothing short of astounding."
Indeed the origins of Axis Community Health certainly fit the bill of the proverbial humble beginnings.
Recognizing the need to provide pediatric care to low-income children in eastern Alameda County and southern Contra Costa County, a grassroots group known as the Health Care Concerns Committee formally incorporated as a nonprofit agency in 1972 to bring their vision into reality.
Their first clinic, serving kids who had no other access to health care, operated out of a small house on Spring Street in downtown Pleasanton under the leadership of founding director Birdie Bianchi.
"Its 'startup' funds totaled $800," Compton said, looking back at the organization's history. "The clinic grew slowly in the early years and, as services expanded to include adults, it moved over to a small apartment complex on Railroad Avenue."
The relocated Valley Community Health Center would offer adult medical care, women's health services and a women, infants and children (WIC) nutrition program in the heart of downtown Pleasanton.
As the calendar turned to a new decade and the need in the Tri-Valley kept growing, the nonprofit positioned itself to increase services with a senior support program and mental health counseling. By the latter part of the 1980s, a satellite clinic opened in Livermore, in the city's Multi-Service Building.
The organization continued to serve those in need and diversified its programs as opportunities arose as the 20th century became the 21st, including rebranding as Axis Community Health in 2004, renovating its Pacific Avenue clinic in Livermore in 2006 and redesigning its Railroad Avenue space in Pleasanton three years later.
"But a lack of resources prevented the organization from being able to fully meet the needs of the community," Axis officials said.
That strain would be eased thanks to two key turning points that truly altered Axis' path.
The U.S. Bureau of Primary Health Care granted Axis the status of "federally qualified health center" in 2009, which led to an influx of federal funding that also increased after the implementation of the Affordable Care Act nationwide in 2010.
After that juncture, the number of patients for Axis increased by 40% -- leading to a pressing demand for more space.
Axis bought a 24,000-square-foot building in Hacienda Business Park in 2011, with the goal of developing the office building into a clinical facility. A years-long fundraising campaign followed, positioning the nonprofit to start construction in 2015.
The $12 million facility on West Las Positas Boulevard opened its doors in 2016, doubling Axis' service capacity.
Over the next six years, Axis would continue to expand its services and locations throughout the Tri-Valley, with support from public and private funds.
"I have been a patient at Axis Community Health for several years, and I cannot speak highly enough about their quality of care, facilities and their human touch," said Deneen A., an Axis patient whose last name was withheld for medical privacy reasons. "I recently had a tooth extraction at the new Axis dental clinic in Dublin and was very pleased with the results. The community is fortunate to have this quality well ran resource."
Jared H., another patient who asked not to be fully identified, added, "Axis Community Health is my psychotherapy counselor provider. They have always treated me well, they accept many insurances, and also have a sliding scale for those with no insurance and low income. Everyone is very friendly and makes sure I feel comfortable and welcome."
"From its start as a small organization in cramped quarters, it has grown into a multi-site organization providing key services to thousands in the region least able to afford health care," Paxson said. "Axis has grown to supply not only primary health care needs but to address other areas of health including mental and behavioral health, dental health and specialty health services for its clients."
Axis opened the Tri-Valley's first-ever affordable dental clinic for low-income and uninsured residents in 2019 in Dublin.
New renovations at the Railroad Avenue facility were also completed that year, which included an integrated behavioral health building and a second area that houses the call center, medical records, patient referrals and billing.
In early 2020, Axis added orthopedics, acupuncture and chiropractic care to its collection of services.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, forcing the nonprofit to convert nearly all of its services to telehealth but eventually also allowing it to expand its reach by implementing COVID-19 testing and vaccination services.
As of this spring, Axis had administered more than 23,000 tests and 26,000 vaccination doses for COVID-19.
With mental health care and emergency response being cast into the spotlight during the pandemic, Axis partnered last July with the cities of Pleasanton, Livermore and Dublin, along with Alameda County, to develop Axis Bridge -- a new mental health urgent care service that "provides rapid access to mental health services, care management and psychiatry services for anyone who is facing an urgent mental health concern," according to Compton.
"Axis is growing and expanding its response as a provider. Plans are in place to open a new clinic to bring proximate services to its clientele," Paxson said, adding:
"Axis has always been a leader in innovation and its growth over the next several years, both in terms of facilities and services, will allow it to be able to provide a more comprehensive and broader form of support to those in need."
The increased presence in Livermore will be via a new 8,600-square-foot facility in a building the nonprofit purchased in downtown to offer additional medical, behavioral health and dental services. The site is scheduled to open in late 2023.
"We are so proud of the legacy that 50 years of service has brought to the Tri-Valley area. It is an incredible honor to serve our most vulnerable community members and provide them with best in class health care," Axis' incoming CEO Liz Perez-Howe told the Weekly.
Perez-Howe, the organization's chief operating officer since 2013, was selected by the board in April to succeed Compton upon her retirement this month after 15 years at the helm. Both featured prominently in Axis' 50th anniversary celebration held in early May.
The organization that began in five decades in a converted small house with just three staff members has evolved into an affordable health care network with five locations in the Tri-Valley, nearly 200 staff members and an annual operating budget of $31 million.
"We know that a strong and healthy community depends on strong and healthy residents," Perez-Howe said. "Our team has never been more committed to living our mission to reach the underserved. We look forward to our next 50 years."