Capital campaign underway to bring free medical clinic to Franklin

The plan for the proposed Community Health Hub is to house resource agencies to provide health and human services to uninsured people below the federal poverty level.

Deena C. Bouknight – Contributing Writer

More than 50% of uninsured people are below 100% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) throughout the six western North Carolina counties, according to statistics gleaned by Vecinos, which has proposed the establishment of a Community Health Hub that provides uninsured, low-income community members a variety of human and health services. The goal is for the Hub to be completed in Franklin, on Hwy 441 at the former Smoky Mountains Systems Building, by spring 2024, and to include, besides a Vecinos free clinic, services for dental, counseling, and more. 

Vecinos Executive Director Marianne Martinez, explained that the nonprofit organization was established in Jackson County in 2004 out of the Jackson County Health Department to address needs in the migrant farm worker community by offering healthcare services “in a confidential manner and in a culturally-appropriate, Spanish-speaking environment.” 

In 2021, Vecinos expanded its patient eligibility requirements to serve any low-income, uninsured adult, regardless of field of employment.

She pointed out that the word “vecinos” means “neighbor” in Spanish, and the Vecinos website focuses on the varied aspects of integrated care offered to the multitudes of people needing access to medical services. 

Currently, a capital campaign is underway to raise funds to outright purchase and renovate an existing building to bring it up to healthcare standards. Martinez presented the proposed project in a detailed report that included slides to the Macon County Commissioners at their September meeting. 

The proposed Hub will have as its cornerstone a Vecinos free clinic. However, Martinez explained that Vecinos will maintain its Cullowhee location and also co-locate with four other agencies that serve similar populations: Blue Ridge Free Dental, 30th Judicial District Alliance for domestic violence and sexual abuse services, Centro Comunitario of Macon County for advocacy work, and Pisgah Legal Services for tax prep and ACA (Affordable Care Act) enrollment. 

“We also plan to have a community room that can be rented out by anyone for meetings and trainings,” she said. “We will do group and community public education and fundraisers in that room. It’s also for telecommuting with other Vecinos workers and other agencies.” 

“Since 2000, the Latinx population in the six Western North Carolina counties has increased by 377%, from approximately 1,658 individuals in 2000 to an estimated 7,900 individuals in 2019 (Jackson, Macon, Graham, Clay, Cherokee, and Swain counties combined),” Martinez continued. “An average of 4.6% of households speak a language other than English in the home and approximately 3.1% of the total population is foreign born within the service area [2019 U.S. Census Bureau Estimates]. Service providers in the region consider these numbers a conservative estimate, given that census data fails to capture the full immigrant community when considering undocumented individuals and migrant farmworkers.”

Although the Hub would be accessible by anyone in WNC who is uninsured and below 200% of the FPL, Martinez shared that “3,001-6,500 people in the Franklin area are currently not served by a health center, which is the largest percentage in the entire region.”

Currently, few Federally Qualified Health Centers operate in the region, their services are limited, and the Spanish speaking language barrier is often challenging. In contrast, Martinez said, “All of our staff speaks Spanish because the work is so integrated in the Latinx communities.”

“We are all very excited about this project,” expressed Martinez. “The Hub could truly change healthcare in WNC and offer a unique opportunity for people who haven’t been able to seek healthcare. None of [the organizations] can do it on our own in such a massive region – around 4,000 square miles. Having an opportunity to co-locate and be physically together will benefit greatly the uninsured. We want to give patients and clients the dignity of a place that’s meant for them, and that’s inspiring. The Hub will truly be about coming together as neighbors.”

Martinez got involved in “farm worker health” in 2008. 

“I’m from a small family farm in Western North Carolina,” she said. “My family has been involved in farming in some way. This is my way. So, when the executive director position opened at Vecinos, I had finished my Master’s a year earlier, so this was ideal.” 

In order to obtain its goal of $5.6 million to achieve the Community Health Hub, Vecinos is accepting individual donations and seeking funds from private foundations and through the local and county government. For more information about Vecinos or to donate, visit the website at