Community Member Spotlight: Steph Willding, MPA, Fellowship Class of 2023 and Chief Executive Officer, CommunityHealth

By Douglas Riddle, PhD, DMin, FAPA, Carol Emmott Foundation Curriculum Director

What does the CEO of the largest volunteer-based health center in the  country do when she’s not CEO-ing? She’s volunteering herself for animal rescue, youth running, or women’s advancement organizations. Steph Willding remembers her grandmother who raised seven children on little income and who gave back constantly, visiting and reading to folks in assisted living facilities, supporting food and clothing drives in her church, and leading craft classes. This generational commitment to serving inspired the teen-aged Steph to spend her lunch periods in high school delivering Meals-on-Wheels and supporting animal rescue. She was an ideal candidate for the head job at CommunityHealth when they came calling in 2019.

That year, Steph continued her health leadership path by stepping up to the job of CEO for this unique healthcare system. CommunityHealth is not the raggedy room in a church basement of my own free clinic days but a complete, complex, and highly organized health system providing the same level of care a federally qualified health system (FQHC) that bills for services might provide. The difference is there’s no billing.

CommunityHealth is funded entirely through philanthropy and donated goods and services. Steph proudly notes that “for every $1 donated, we provide $7 worth of services. It’s not only the financial model that makes CommunityHealth different. Because of their reliance on volunteerism, they are able to provide primary and almost 25 different specialty care services on site in their 15 exam rooms. “Uninsured people would ordinarily have difficulty accessing that care.”

While the center includes about 50 paid staff, they work to support over 1,000 active volunteers. Paid staff supply the front desk, care coordination, the nursing staff, and most of the pharmacy services. Medical care providers might be independent caregivers or retired medical staff, but they also engage 16 different training programs. Medical students, for example, organize themselves by finding an attending physician and lead their own efforts to involve their peers. They are also a placement location for residency programs, both primary and specialty care. Additionally, they receive the benefit of over 200 volunteer interpreters located across 22 different states.

Steph’s commitment to justice and fairness was originally supposed to take her into law. As an undergraduate she majored in international studies with civil rights law in her sights. Her passion was reproductive justice and human rights. After working full time while being in school full time, she took a year off and “stumbled” into a job at an FQHC. While there, she realized that she was actually making an impact on the questions that concerned her. She did not go on to law school but started on her path through health services for underserved populations and non-profit youth services. Along the way she added a Master’s degree in Public Administration with an emphasis on nonprofit leadership.

She says a great deal of what’s unique about her health center is that they are incredibly nimble and flexible. “I can’t ask if I can bill for something since I can’t bill for anything.” The example is the current crisis in immigration that has seen migrants being bussed from border states without any resources in place for them. “We were asked to step in, and we were on the ground in less than 10 days. We went to our donors able to demonstrate that we could be flexible and responsive because we are free and volunteer based. Of course, it is not only in major politically-driven crises that this uniqueness makes a difference. “Because we are free, we have longer appointment times. We can focus more on prevention with our patients. We are a top quartile health center in Chicago with our outcomes. All because we bring a lens shaped by a patient and community impact perspective.”

The rings of impact are not limited to patients. CommunityHealth is proud to provide experiences for medical students and others who go on to build on their encounters with unique communities and populations served by the free clinic. Lab workers get on-site experiences that prepare them for medical assistant roles. “Forty percent of our staff were volunteers here first. They were invested in our mission before they were paid to be invested in our mission.”

While extremely proud of what they are accomplishing in Chicago, part of Steph laments the reality of their continuous growth. They are expanding because the need is expanding. They have built a creative business model of volunteers, philanthropy, and partnerships, but she declares, “We shouldn’t need to exist. It means the (healthcare) system is failing.”

As more and more people fall through the cracks or have never had fair access to healthcare in the American healthcare system, the critical need for institutions like CommunityHealth continues to grow.  The resources do not begin to match the challenge. That’s why we are proud of Class of 2023 Fellow, Steph Willding, and her leadership.

“Volunteerism is people,” she affirms. It is because of leaders like Steph that people are being mobilized to make a difference in healthcare for those who have the greatest need.