50 for 50
If you have the wrong key, the door will not open.
This is how Yanira Padilla Cruz, the Associate Director of Care Coordination and Outreach has long seen her job at Open Door.
“At Open Door, we make every effort to help the patient,” says Yanira, who came to the U.S. from Puerto Rico in 2011 and started working at Open Door as a patient advocate in 2015. “What is unique at Open Door is that everyone here shares the mission. They are here because they really care and want to make a difference. They wake up every day wanting to help someone.”
Yanira worked for years as a nurse in her native land and applied for a job at Open Door from an ad in a local Penny Saver “because it sounded like a place where I would want to work.”
She was hoping to eventually regain her nursing license. Instead, she fell in love with her job, was quickly promoted into leadership roles and returned to school, where she eventually got her Master’s in Public Health.
She believes that having personally suffered with a chronic illness, where she was unable to work for years, gives her a special insight into her patients’ plight and provided her with a special empathy.
“I see myself in every single adult patient,” she says. “Having been ill helped me stand in my patients’ shoes. I tell them there is light at the end of the tunnel. I went through a lot of challenges and I wish I had a patient advocate or care manager like our patients do at Open Door.”
Many patients, primarily those who speak Spanish and need help navigating a complex health care system, often don’t feel comfortable sharing personal information or asking certain questions of their doctors, she says.
“Coming in with a nursing background has allowed me to translate medical terms into plain language so it’s easy for the patient to understand. We educate them and encourage them to share personal things so we understand their unique stories and can help them.”
For Open Door patients, people like Yanira provide the right key.
It was in the mid-1970s that Judge William Wetzel, then a young lawyer who had recently moved his family from Peekskill to Briarcliff Manor, first heard from a friend about a fledgling health care organization that was struggling to provide medical care for those in the community who were in need of high quality, affordable services.
At the time, the cards were largely stacked against Open Door Family Medical Services. It employed one part-time physician, who only saw patients one night a week. Services were provided in a less-than-conducive setting – the basement of an Ossining church. And, the closest hospital wanted little to do with them.
But Judge Wetzel liked what he saw.
“Some people saw it as ‘socialized medicine’ and doctors were initially reluctant to get involved,’” remembers Judge Wetzel, who several years later would serve as Open Door’s board chair. “But Open Door was efficient, upright and honest, and it provided a local service that people were greatly in need of. Open Door was all the things that I supported philanthropically.”
Judge Wetzel, who spent 15 years on the state Supreme Court, says that the organization grew much faster than anyone imagined. “The community at large embraced the idea for providing medical services for the needy and it was so well run. There wouldn’t be an Open Door without the talent and commitment of Marge Griesmer and Lindsay Farrell (the organization’s only two presidents in 50 years).”
What would people from those early days be surprised to hear about the Open Door of today? “They would be shocked by the efficiency of the delivery system, by the scope of their services, and mostly by the fact of how great the demand is that they are fulfilling.
“Open Door put together a formula thanks to Marge and Lindsay. I’m overwhelmed that it got to this size and most impressed by its ability to provide a high-quality service not just in the village of Ossining, but throughout the county and the region.”
She was hired to spread the word about Open Door.
But when she became a patient, she saw it from a whole different perspective.
It was 15 years ago, shortly after arriving from Nicaragua to work as an au pair, that Gabby Saravia first heard about Open Door. Everybody in Port Chester, she says, seemed to have good things to say about the organization. It would be a great place to work, she thought, and nearly five years ago she was hired as a part-time outreach assistant. This soon turned into a full-time job. Eventually, Open Door promoted her to patient engagement administrator.
She helped patients learn to navigate the ins and outs of the healthcare system, which can be particularly challenging to those, like Gabby, who come here with little English fluency. She soon became a key voice to patients, reaching out to them from the Open Door patient portal, its Facebook page and its website. This often means giving those patients, who may have a problem, her personal phone number.
Over the years, she has spoken to scores of people in the community at Open Door events, like the Happy Mommy, Happy Baby program she helped initiate for new moms and their babies at Open Door sites in Ossining and Port Chester. Here, new moms brought their young babies to meet other women like them and hear advice from experts in areas like weight loss, behavioral health, nutrition, and exercise.
But it was during her pregnancy that Gabby experienced the Open Door way first-hand. Doctors and midwives monitored her closely when she began to show signs of gestational diabetes. “They were amazing, always staying on top of me,” she says. “They would even call me on the weekend to see how I was doing.”
She would probably not have chosen to breastfeed her daughter, Amelia, now 1, she admits, “if it hadn’t been for the experts, who convinced me it was the best thing to do. So, I thought I’d give it a try.”
She’s happy she did. Today, it’s the personal experience that she feels has made her even better at her job. “I have a much deeper understanding after being a patient,” she says. “It’s made me feel more confident when I talk to other patients. It was a great experience.”
Al encontrar su peso aumentando incontrolablemente durante la pandemia, Jorge García ha estado en una jornada de pérdida de peso, que ya ha resultado en la pérdida de casi 50 libras.
Jorge pesaba hasta 323 libras, su presión arterial se había subido a más de 150 y tenía problemas cardíacos. Sus niveles de azúcar eran altos y contrajo Covid-19 dos veces. También estaba luchando contra una bacteria gastrointestinal.
"Mi asistente médico, Jens Haerter, me recomendó que tratara de perder peso y me remitió a Paola Caetano, una dietista registrada con el Programa de Bienestar de Open Door", dice Jorge. "Comencé el asesoramiento nutricional y hoy he bajado a 275 libras y me siento mucho mejor".
Dice que está agradecido con Open Door por su atención compasiva y de calidad y por nunca rechazarlo a pesar de no tener seguro e incapaz de pagar.
"Les diría a otros que pueden estar en una situación similar que deben trabajar duro y hacer su parte siguiendo las recomendaciones, haciendo ejercicio y practicando las pautas dietéticas que proporciona el equipo de Open Door", él dice. "Debemos tomar el control de nuestras propias vidas".
Dice que ahora se siente como un 7 en una escala del 1 al 10. Todavía está por debajo de su objetivo de bajar a 220 libras, lo que equivaldrá a una pérdida general de más de 100 libras, pero se siente que está bien encaminado.
Finding his weight climbing uncontrollably during the pandemic, Jorge Garcia has been on a weight loss journey that has already resulted in the loss of nearly 50 pounds.
Jorge weighed as much as 323 pounds, his blood pressure had soared over 150, and he had cardiac concerns. His sugar levels were high and he twice contracted Covid-19. He was also fighting a GI bacterium.
“My physician assistant, Jens Haerter, recommended that I try to lose weight and he referred me to Paola Caetano, a registered dietitian with Open Door’s Wellness Program,” says Jorge. “I began nutrition counseling and today I am down to 275 pounds and feeling much better.”
He says he is thankful to Open Door for both their compassionate and quality care and for never turning him away despite being uninsured and unable to pay.
“I would tell others who may be in a similar situation that you need to work hard and do your part adhering to the recommendations, exercising and following the dietary guidelines that the team at Open Door provides,” he says. “We must take control of our own lives.”
He says he now feels like a 7 on a scale of 1 to 10. While still short of his goal of getting down to 220 pounds – which will amount to an overall loss of more than 100 pounds – he feels that he’s well on his way.
Carolyn Lane can take you on a tour through Open Door’s early history.
That’s because she lived it for more than 30 years.
Part-time doctors saw patients at night in the basement of the First Baptist Church in Ossining. Tables and chairs, normally used for Sunday School, were redeployed in the exam rooms. To say it was a seat-of-the-pants operation would be an understatement.
“In 1974, I met a pharmacist who when he heard I was a nurse, asked me if I would be interested working as a volunteer in a free clinic for the ‘working poor,’ people who could not otherwise afford medical care,” recalls Carolyn.
She needed little convincing. Soon, she was working two nights a week, “doing a little bit of everything.”
Two years later, Open Door hired Carolyn and Lee Engle as nurse practitioners to augment their care. This is about the time that an anonymous donation, a “Mr. X,” provided the funds for the organization to purchase the building across the street that had been Hilliker’s Department Store.
“There were carousel horses and antiques on the third floor,” she says. “Here they set up women’s health and pediatrics, mostly for well visits and preventive care. Phelps Hospital rented space for psych. Eventually, Open Door bought the Ross Men’s Wear building next door.”
Every 10 years or so over the next three decades, she says, Open Door experienced a growth spurt. In 1986, it opened its Sleepy Hollow office on Benedict Avenue, where Carolyn saw patients one afternoon a week. The Port Chester site opened about 10 years later. And then, in 2006, when Carolyn was ready to retire, Open Door added Mount Kisco.
“It was a privilege to make a difference in people’s lives,” she says. “These were people who had no place to go and who no one was paying attention to.
“It wasn’t a job. It was a mission. And filling that need was very heartwarming and satisfying.”
As an example, she remembers one young woman who had come to see her. Pregnant, she was unsure whether to keep the child.
“I had never told her what to do, but we would have a dialogue. We were here to help people and tell them their options and risks and help them make their own decisions.
“She had stopped coming to Open Door and I hadn’t seen her in a while. Then a couple of years later, I had a knock on my door and there was a woman holding a toddler. “She said, ‘I don’t know if you remember me, but I want to introduce you to my daughter, Carolyn.’”
Hundreds of nurses have worked at Open Door over the past half century.
But Lee Engle was the first to draw a paycheck.
Lee was working as a volunteer pediatric nurse in Ossining in 1973 when management at the fledgling organization sent her to Columbia University to become a nurse practitioner. Only eight years earlier, the first school for nurse practitioners had been founded in the U.S. to meet the increasing need for primary care. By the end of the 1970s, the number of NPs in the country grew to 15,000. Today, there are nearly 200,000.
Open Door did the most they could in those early days with limited resources – beyond a small, unrelenting and passionate group of individuals. They were the little engine that could. Lee remembers when staff literally moved furniture from the church basement to its new location in what was previously a department store because it couldn’t afford the cost of a moving company. Still, she thought so highly of the medical care it provided, that her daughter, Liz Fidele, remembers getting her primary care at Open Door from the time she was a small child until she became an adult.
“It was a time when people were really tuned into helping the poor and the homeless,” says Lee. “I enjoyed working in that kind of environment. It was a cause I wanted to get behind.”
She recalls the great camaraderie among staff. Their families pitched in for other families.
“We had generations of families come through as patients,” she says. “We took care of little boys and girls and then we saw them become parents and grandparents. It all happened right before our eyes. Parents would come in and say, ‘Hi, Dr. Lee, you were my doctor and I would have to correct them and remind them I was their nurse.”
Patients have not forgotten Lee, who worked at Open Door for 27 years. “My mom recently had a stint in long-term rehab,” says Liz Fedele. “A lot of her former patients worked there and remembered her. They would say, ‘You took care of me then and now I’m taking care of you.’ “
Volunteers like Jim Jackman have always played a big role at Open Door, but perhaps no more so than during the height of the pandemic.
After selling his Mamaroneck gas station and following back surgery, Jim was looking to keep busy by helping others. He came across Open Door on the VolunteerNewYork website. Admittedly, at the time, he knew nothing about the organization.
After contacting Jane Levy, senior manager of volunteer services at Open Door, Jim delivered toys as part of the Toy Giveaway holiday program. When many Open Door patients in 2020 and 2021 were homebound and unable to access groceries for fear of leaving their homes and contacting the virus, Jim brought packages of food to them. Once or twice a week he drove from his Yorktown Height home to deliver basic food staples – bags with cans of soup and beans, jars of peanut butter, “healthy food,” he says – to those Open Door patients most in need.
“A lot of people were surprised to see me,” he says. “I went into lots of different neighborhoods.“ At one basement apartment, he had to walk through a foot of water to deliver the package. He says he felt bad for many of the people on his route, but he also could identify with their struggles.
“I know what it’s like to go to bed hungry,” says Jim, who first lived on his own as a teenager. “I would work six days and since I didn’t get paid until the weekend I would sometimes run out of food by Friday. I would live on instant pancakes – until Kraft mac and cheese came on the market.”
Occasionally, he took his young daughter on food deliveries with him to show her the importance of giving back to those less fortunate. He’s exceedingly humble about his own role.
“I see people like Jane as heroes,” he says. “She does it all from her office and makes a huge difference in people’s lives.”
“I am beyond words and so thankful for Open Door.”
So begins a letter recently sent by Nickolas Cooper, a professional photographer and patient at Open Door.
“Having the ability to wake up and be pain-free, to smile without being embarrassed, or just to be able to engage in a conversation and not rush through because your teeth hurt. I could not have imagined this as recently as last year. But Open Door gave me that gift.”
As a small business owner, Nickolas lost his health insurance during the pandemic. For the first time, he was faced with finding health care and dental services on his own. “I wasn’t sure where to go or who to call, but Open Door was the first to offer me a timely appointment and reassure me that I would get the care I needed.”
He calls scheduling his first visit at Open Door one of the best decisions of his life. “They demonstrated compassion and wisdom from the time I received my initial visit and X-rays,” he writes. “They even took an X-ray of every tooth to make sure they did not miss anything. They coordinated with my schedule to find time when I could come for an appointment. I subsequently have been able to renew my business/personal insurance. However, I chose a policy that ensures that my care can continue with Open Door. I simply could not imagine moving to a new dental office.”
Nickolas' appreciation for the excellent care he received prompted him to give back to Open Door by donating his services to photograph mothers and babies at Open Door events. “To see the smiles of other patients who have been impacted by Open Door is deeply gratifying,” he writes. “From the bottom of my heart, thank you Open Door for everything you have done for me – allowing me, for the first time in half a decade, to truly be appreciative of every moment of every day."
The last couple of years, the pandemic notwithstanding, have been very good for Nick Antaki.
The 37-year-old Port Chester man got married. He bought a house. His wife, Gabriela Saravia, the patient engagement administrator at Open Door, gave birth to their first child, Amelia.
And, the Wall Street executive realized he needed to change the course of his health.
It began with his wife referring him to “Dr. Max” (Dr. Robert Dyksterhouse, an internist in the Port Chester Open Door site). Nick was overweight and his blood pressure was high. Plus, family history is not necessarily on his side – his beloved great uncle died far too young at 50 from a massive heart attack when Nick was just 13.
“Dr. Max was incredible from the very first moment,” says Nick. “He was very thorough in getting a full history, asking a lot of questions and digging in when it came to his concerns and the challenges. He really cares about his patients and the healthcare of the community.”
He got Nick to see an Open Door nutritionist, who explained to him the importance of eating properly. This included teaching Nick what goes into a balanced diet and making him more mindful of proper portion size, which has admittedly been a problem over the years.
“I’m half Italian and half Syrian,” says Nick. “A great combination for enjoying food. It was very easy to gain weight, a lot more fun to put it on than take it off.”
Dr. Max changed Nick’s blood pressure medication. He helped him with a regular exercise regimen that includes cardiovascular, core and weight training.
To date, Nick has lost 50 pounds. He looks and feels better than he has in years. And he now has a clear plan moving forward – and a strong incentive.
“I’ve always battled weight, lost and gained 100 pounds,” says Nick. “But now, I’m motivated. It’s more than just vanity. I’m doing it for the sake of love. I have people counting on me. It’s a higher calling.”
In Simon Benavides’ dreams, he still works for Open Door.
Meanwhile, an organization can only dream about having people as devoted to its cause as Simon Benavides.
It was soon after Open Door opened in 1972 that Simon and his wife Mariana, recent emigrants to Ossining from Ecuador, first heard about “this lady Margaritta” (Marge Griesmer), who had opened a local health clinic. “There we found medical care for our (six) children free of charge,” says Simon. “In many situations, free medicine was possible. So, we started going to Open Door.”
An industrial engineer in his native country, Simon was too proud to accept free medical care. He insisted on giving something back by working as a handyman at Open Door. He cleaned, repaired, and painted, maintaining the plumbing, electricity, and air conditioning for the foundling operation.
As donations started pouring in for the new health care center, Margie Griesmer felt it was unfair for Simon to work without compensation. “She started paying me every month,” he remembers. “She said, ‘You come in every day and you give us hours and we’ll pay you.’ I said, ‘You give me whatever is in your heart.’ Every time I was in need, Open Door always offered my family and community a great service.”
This connection only grew over the years, with Simon eventually wearing a different hat – as a member of the Open Door board in the 1980s. And even though he had a full-time job, he always considered Open Door his main job. “I still feel like I’m part of Open Door. I dream this constantly. Sometimes I think I forgot to punch out.”
Simon’s feelings for Open Door fueled his idea several years ago to build a museum with artifacts from the organization’s early years. Although it never came to fruition, he likes to point out the copper pipe he found and installed nearly 50 years ago at the 165 Main Street site in Ossining. Like the contributions made by Simon over the years, you can’t miss it when you walk through Open Door’s front door.
An organization's success is dependent on building a solid foundation (lower case “f”).
And caring for the needs of an underserved community, says one long-time member of the Open Door Foundation board (capital “F”), begins with creating the right kind of community of supporters.
“I love Open Door’s ability to bring services to the community and I have so much respect for Lindsay and Dr. Wu and the leadership. Lindsay is a tremendous leader and big thinker,” says Leslie Allen, who got her feet wet with Open Door in the 1990s by organizing house tours and overseeing the creation of high-profiled concerts to raise money, and went on to play an integral role for 17 years on its Foundation Board. “But what is also so impressive is the breath of the people who make up Open Door. The friendships and relationships I formed on the board have been very special. What Lindsay has done so well is to create a community to serve the community. There are a lot of voices to be heard and they all count.”
Leslie, a highly visible “mover and shaker” in her community, who presently serves as chair of the Ossining Public Library Foundation, says she has always been impressed by Open Door’s innovation. As examples, she points to the health-based health centers and the mobile dental units.
“Somehow, we make it work one way if not another,” she says. “It has certainly become a much more complicated business since I left the board. And, yes, I certainly didn’t know it would become so big, but Open Door continues to provide exceptional services. The quality of services can’t be beat. And it all begins with a solid foundation.”
It was as a parent that Sandy Galef first became acquainted with Open Door in the 1970s.
“I would bring my two children there,” says the long-time assemblywoman, who was first elected to the state assembly in 1992 and served as a county legislator before this. “My daughter seemed to get strep throat every time we went on vacation and I remember going to Open Door in the basement of the church and the doctor giving us pink medication to take on the trip. I remember how important it was that they were open evenings and weekends. It saved a lot of people from ending up in the ER.”
It was actually Steve Galef, her late husband, who several years earlier was the first member of the Galef family to become acquainted with Open Door. As an attorney and community advocate involved in urban renewal and later as a county legislator, he knew the need for a high quality, affordable health care option in Ossining. Accessible food and health care, were his top priorities for his constituents, says Assemblywoman Galef. Steve Galef later served on the Open Door board.
“As a legislator, I’m so pleased Open Door is where it is today and provides such a wonderful service,” says Sandy. “I don’t worry about people getting appropriate health care in our communities regardless of income level or ethnic background. I can’t say the same when it comes to the rest of the state, but here we’re very fortunate to have such an environment.”
Janeth Arpi y Veronica Tinoco, dos pacientes de Open Door, expresan su agradecimiento por un
programa único y práctico de cocinar y nutrición que les ha brindado las herramientas que
necesitan para practicar una dieta saludable para ellas y sus hijos.
Treinta pacientes en el 2022, mujeres prenatales, cuidadores y padres de niños de hasta cinco
años, participaron en el programa Cooking Matters de ocho semanas de Open Door. A través de
una subvención de seis meses, el programa ofreció clases virtuales de cocina y materiales
educativos sobre la alimentación saludable y económica tanto en inglés como en español. Los
pacientes también recibieron mensajes de texto semanales con información de salud y nutrición
extraída directamente del plan de estudios de Cooking Matters, incluyendo enlaces a recursos en
línea de Cooking Matters como videos y folletos.
"Me proporcionó la educación que necesitaba para ayudar a mis hijos a estar más sanos", dice
Janeth, quien llegó a los Estados Unidos hace cuatro años y tiene dos hijos pequeños. "Aprendí
cómo alentarlos y enseñarles a comer diferentes alimentos y cómo porcionar las comidas según
sus preferencias. Me enseñó a usar formas creativas de alentar a mis hijos a probar diferentes
alimentos nutritivos y no solo a ceder porque dicen 'no me gusta eso'".
Cooking Matters trabaja en comunidades de todo el país para ayudar a los padres y cuidadores a
desarrollar sus habilidades para comprar y cocinar alimentos saludables y económicos.
Aprenden como cocinar, preparar comidas, hacer compras, mantener un presupuesto para los
alimentos y la nutrición.
"Como padres, a veces solo queremos complacer a nuestros hijos y darles lo que quieren, una
comida rápida", dice Verónica. "Cooking Matters me ayudó a aprender que hay maneras de
introducir a mis hijos a los vegetales y las frutas de una manera impactante. A mi hija (de 3
años) le gusta cortar los vegetales, lavarlos y ahora incluso le gustan los vegetales en su pizza.
Ahora también le gustan las frutas. Su dieta ha cambiado mucho".
Los participantes también recibieron una bolsa con utensilios de cocina, recetas, frutas y
vegetales, e ingredientes cada semana. "Toda la premisa de Cooking Matters es educar a las
personas sobre cómo comprar y preparar alimentos saludables y económicos para evitar la
inseguridad alimentaria", dice Claudio Villarroel, director asociado de Programas de Bienestar
en Open Door.
La inseguridad alimentaria es un problema para muchos de los pacientes de Open Door. Las
comidas de Cooking Matters incluyeron favoritos como tartas de frutas, mini pizzas, batidos de
frutas, atuneros, envolturas de vegetales, salteados, cenas de pasta y quesadillas de vegetales,
todos preparados de manera saludable.
Janeth Arpi and Veronica Tinoco, two Open Door patients, express thanks for a unique, hands-on cooking/nutritional program that has given them the tools they need to practice a healthy diet for themselves and their children.
Thirty patients in 2022 – prenatal women, and caregivers and parents of children up to the age of five years old – participated in Open Door’s eight-week Cooking Matters program. Through a six-month grant, the program offered virtual cooking classes and educational materials on eating healthy and affordably in both English and Spanish. Patients also received weekly text messages with health and nutrition information drawn directly from the Cooking Matters curriculum, including links to such online Cooking Matters resources as videos and handouts.
“It provided me with the education I needed to help my children become healthier,” says Janeth, who arrived in the U.S. four years ago and has two young children. “I learned how to encourage and teach them to eat different foods and how to portion meals to their preferences. It taught me how to use creative ways to encourage my children to taste different nutritious foods and not just give in because they say ‘I don’t like that.’”
Cooking Matters works in communities across the country to help parents and caregivers develop their skills when shopping for and cooking healthy and affordable foods. They learn about cooking, meal preparation, grocery shopping, food budgeting and nutrition.
“As parents, sometimes we just want to please our children and give them what they want, a quick meal,” says Veronica. “Cooking Matters helped me to learn there are ways to introduce my children to vegetables and fruits in an impactful way. My (3-year-old) daughter enjoys chopping vegetables, washing them and now even likes vegetables on her pizza. She also likes fruits now. Her diet has changed a lot.”
Participants also received a bag with cooking utensils, recipes, fruits and vegetables, and ingredients each week. “The whole premise of Cooking Matters is to educate people on how to shop for and prepare healthy and affordable foods to avoid food insecurity,” says Claudio Villarroel, associate director of Wellness Programs at Open Door.
Food insecurity is a problem for many of Open Door’s patients. The meals with Cooking Matters included such favorites as fruit tarts, mini pizzas, fruit smoothies, tuna boats, veggie wraps, stir fry, pasta dinners and vegetable quesadillas, all prepared in a healthy manner.
Ossining Union Free School District School Superintendent Dr. Ray Sanchez believes in the African proverb “It takes a village.” This is why he places a priority on building relationships with community partners to enrich the district’s services and resources.
“We know that we better meet the needs of our children and families because we work closely with some outstanding partners,” he says. “It’s like tools in the toolbox. The more tools we have, the better we are able to adapt our programs and our structures to support those needs.”
Open Door has long been one of those valued partners.
The Ossining schools and Open Door have partnered on many projects over the years, from having the Open Door dental van treat young patients at its early childhood schools, to collaborating on Health and Wellness days that provide information on staying healthy, to fostering a health leadership program that gives high school students with an interest in pursuing careers in the medical field the chance to get first-hand experience at Open Door.
Without question, the most obvious benefit of the partnership between the two has been the longstanding Ossining School-based health centers in its elementary, middle and high schools. “There are very positive components to having Open Door in the building from a health and wellness perspective for our students and our families,” says Dr. Sanchez. “Parents would otherwise have to make appointments and leave their jobs to take their kids to the doctor. The convenience of having Open Door and its providers in the school has been invaluable to us.”
Dr. Sanchez, who started working at Ossining schools more than 20 years ago, beginning as a fourth-grade teacher and becoming in 2013 the school superintendent for the 5,000-student district, says he became more and more aware of Open Door as he moved up the ranks. “When I moved into the central office, I started to understand all the workings of Open Door and the robust offerings it has for families. I became aware of its dental and mental health services, and have been humbled to know all it does and the proactive work it does for our families.
“Its impact is far reaching and we are thankful and supportive of its efforts. Open Door is not a good agency, but a great agency and I feel very fortunate as a superintendent to have such a great gem in our home community.”
Open Door’s School-Based Health centers (now known as the Nita M. Lowey Center for Health in Schools) have long been a lifeline for children and families in Port Chester and Ossining.
For the past 13 years, Lindsay Neptune, a pediatric nurse practitioner and its director of clinical services, has seen its importance first-hand.
“We get to see kids in their environment and learn how they interact with classmates, teachers, and support systems. This gives us a unique perspective, a very different one than one gets in a doctor’s office,” she says. “For working parents, it’s so much easier to know their children can get what they need and can access services here without having to miss work or take their children out of school for a physical exam or to see a provider.”
This has been particularly important for recent emigrants, who comprise a significant percentage of Open Door’s patients. It has meant, says Lindsay, obtaining immediate services and insurance coverage for a young patient presenting with type 1 diabetes, or finding a heart murmur during a routine physical exam of a child whose parents were fearful to reveal her condition, or providing mental health services to a young student who had arrived in this country after his family suffered a life-altering trauma.
“These are all very scary things for families to live through and you don’t know who you can trust,” says Lindsay. “We help families find their voice and provide them with a safe place.”
Lindsay, who previously worked as a pediatric nurse at hospitals in Connecticut, was initially attracted to Open Door’s mission. “Serving a population that was underserved is what I always wanted to do,” she says. “I wanted to work with an elementary school population and do more in the community. It was a great match.”
Open Door has grown to nine school-based health centers in these towns’ elementary, middle and high schools. Despite the expansion, and the fact that they have grown and flourished over the years, Lindsay calls the pandemic the most challenging time of her career – one that continues today.
“It forever changed health care and access to it,” she says. She points to the centers still playing catch up in balancing her young patients’ preventive care needs and contending with the obesity and mental health crises that the pandemic produced.
Challenges notwithstanding, she believes Open Door and its School-Based Health centers are unique and critical to the lives of her patients and their families.
“At Open Door, we rely on each other and there’s great teamwork. The staff embodies what we say in our mission statement. It’s not something just written on paper. This is a really, really special place.”
For four years, before arriving as a physician assistant at Open Door, Rachel Snider lived and worked in the Dominican Republic.
“It helped me understand what it means to be in another country and not understand the language or how the society and culture work,” says Rachel. Living in a small rural town, she would pack up her jeep each day with medications and drive to one of seven nearby towns to set up clinics for people desperately in need of medical care. She accomplished what she set out to do: hone her clinical skills (she was often on her own), help those most in need and become fluent in Spanish.
“I feel the same vibe here at Open Door in that I am still working with humble, needy, bilingual patients,” says Rachel, who routinely sees as many as two dozen patients a day ranging in age from newborns to 90-year-olds. “But, unlike in the DR, the resources I have here and the mentoring is incredible. We have amazing programs.”
Also very special, she says, are the people. “The compassion everybody has at Open Door is very special,” she says. “Everyone is so empathetic and passionate about what they are doing. Many who work here were once in the same place as our patients. They were immigrants forced to navigate an often-complex health care system. The people who work here really want to be here.”
Working in a family medicine practice, says Rachel, has also allowed her to take a leadership role in Open Door’s Dramatic Performance Improvement (or DPI), its organization-wide quality improvement project, and to oversee its PA internship program.
“I love the continuity of care we offer here, being able to foster relationships with the entire family,” she says. “We may have an eight-year-old with obesity and a mother who has the same issues and we work together with them as a family. I love to say to the patients, ‘We’ll never have to turn you away.’
“I love that patients feel safe here and are accepted. Everyone at Open Door is seen as a person and as someone who has rights, regardless of their documentation status or poverty status. We care for patients that other places don’t.”
The job assignment changed her life.
It started in the summer of 2015 when Leanna D’Agostino Gissen, a recently minted Hunter College graduate with a degree in psychology, enlisted in AmeriCorps. Leanna planned to complete a one-year term of service and earn an education award from the program before returning to school for her Master’s degree in social work.
Fate, however, intervened when the national service and volunteer organization, which partners with local organizations, assigned Leanna to her first choice – Open Door Family Medical Center.
Leanna knew Open Door well, having grown up in Ossining. “My parents grew up in an Ossining that was very different from the Ossining that I grew up in.” She remembers hearing from her parents, who attended Ossining High School in the 1970s, and her immigrant grandparents, how much of an impact Open Door had in helping the people in town who needed it most. “Open Door was a game changer. Its mission was to take care of everyone in the community. They didn’t care where you came from.”
Leanna was assigned to work in Open Door’s growing Wellness Department. When she started, she knew little about the field of wellness. However, within a short time, she fell in love with what the department was doing and the exercise, nutrition education, and chronic disease self-management and prevention programs that were making such a difference in the lives of their patients.
She completed two tours of duty with AmeriCorps, earning a Group Exercise Certification, before Open Door hired her as a Wellness Coordinator. She found an even deeper love for the programs offered by its Wellness Department as a teacher. Through her employment, she soon got certified as a Diabetes and Chronic Disease Self-Management Program Leader, and then as a Lifestyle Coach for the National Diabetes Prevention Program. She expanded her group exercise certifications to include a Pilates certification and most recently became a Certified Personal Trainer (CPT). She is now working on her prenatal and postnatal certifications. Today, she teaches various evidence-based programs and group exercise classes, allowing her to witness first-hand how through exercise, nutrition, stress reduction, and sleep, patients are able to take their health into their own hands.
Leanna is grateful to have found an organization that supports her personal and professional growth while also enabling her to improve the lives of others.
“I’ve loved Open Door since I was a student at Ossining High School,” she says. “It’s something I wanted to become a part of. I love how we serve our patients, who are really in need of support. To me, Open Door is so much more than just a health center."
Claudio Villarroel arrived in Ossining 20 years ago with limited English language skills, but ample ambitions.
He left a country, Chile, that was recovering from years of dictatorship and civil unrest. He had started college and been drafted into the army there. “I came here by myself without any tuition money. My aunt helped me. She said ‘come for a little while and go to school and work here,’” he says. “I ended up staying.”
It was tough at first. Due to security concerns after 9/11, he would not see his mother or sister in Chile for six years. While learning English, he started taking classes at Westchester Community College, where he received a certificate as a nurse’s assistant. He took a job at a local hospital, becoming part of a committee there that promoted inclusion for underrepresented communities.
Meanwhile, while always working fulltime, he continued his education, getting his Bachelor’s degree in biology from SUNY Purchase. He later received a Master’s degree in Nutrition, which led to a job with Open Door WIC as a nutritionist. He is now a Doctoral candidate in health science working on the last part of his thesis.
Long before he started working at Open Door, he knew the health center as “a pillar in the community” for immigrants like him. This is where he has always received his primary care and where he has the utmost confidence in his providers. Years ago, for example, when he had a toothache and was told by a local dentist that the tooth needed to be extracted, he said “Let me think about it,” and went to Open Door for a second opinion. “The dentist said he could fix it. I was out in an hour and that tooth has given me no more problems – and I still have it.
While with WIC, he started attending exercise classes – kickboxing, Pilates, yoga – in the Ossining Open Door site. This seems predestined, as in 2021 he became associate director of its wellness programs (which includes its diabetes self-management and prediabetes prevention programs and chronic disease program). When the wellness programs were closed during the pandemic, he became involved in the organization’s food security program, helping deliver thousands of meals to patients who were homebound due to Covid-19. He and his team also brought the wellness program online so patients could continue to work out at home without missing a beat.
Claudio is proud of his continuing relationship with an organization that has become such a big part of his life.
“Even when I didn’t speak English well, my needs were never put aside at Open Door,” he says. “I was always treated with dignity and respect. They always try to accommodate everyone in the community. I am proud of being a part of this organization.”