Updated: Sep 17, 2021
Photo courtesy of the Sto-Rox Family Health Center Chief Operating Officer Sister Ruth Bearer and Director Father Regis Ryan stand before the new neighborhood health center on Thompson Avenue after its 1983 opening. Both have since retired.
-STO-ROX NEIGHBORHOOD HEALTH COUNCIL-
By Jamie Wiggan
One day in 1975, Fran Hogan’s late husband Ed responded to a newspaper ad placed by a community health organization in need of a volunteer handyman to help with odd jobs.
Shortly after, an energetic nun showed up at the Hogans’ home on Woodward Avenue and, finding Fran there, wasted no time recruiting her to the organization’s board.
“I told her, ‘I don’t know anything about boards, and health centers, and, no,’” Hogan recalled. “She said, ‘you can learn.’”
So she did. Forty-six years later, Hogan still serves on the board of what has since become the Sto-Rox Family Health Center.
Shortly before Hogan’s recruitment, a Catholic parish priest based in Pittsburgh’s North Side took a new assignment in McKees Rocks to try his hand at leading a community outreach program funded by the diocese. The 35-year-old Father Regis Ryan would go on to lead the family health center for 42 years before retiring in 2017. (He stepped down from the directorship of parent organization Focus on Renewal five years prior.)
Just a few years later, a young podiatrist named Roger Rooth joined the health center’s small team of physicians in a part-time capacity he maintained until earlier this year. Many in the community fondly remember Rooth finding time outside of office hours to visit homebound patients in need of care.
Current staff and board members want to celebrate each of these beloved community pillars during a 50-year celebration gala taking place Sept. 30.
Fran Hogan, Father Regis Ryan and Roger Rooth.
Hogan reportedly tried to opt out, but just like when she was first recruited to the board, she said she was given little choice.
“There are so many people involved, and so many people who’ve given so much time, it doesn’t seem right to single me out,” Hogan said.
Thankfully for Hogan – and the similarly modest Ryan and Rooth – the gala is also about every community member who has made the health center’s story their story over the years.
“It’s a community conversation about healthcare in the community,” said Rebecca King, health center outreach director.
To that end, staff have left out pencils and paper at various stations throughout the Thompson Avenue and Hilltop locations so patients can write down cherished memories to be presented at the gala. A web page detailing the event also allows for story submissions through an online form.
The gala will retain hybrid elements in an effort to maintain social distancing, and stories and other related media curated for the event will remain online for people to peruse later.
Terri Clark, the center’s executive director, said in addition to celebrating a unique place in time, the event is also about championing an idea.
“I’m just excited because this celebrates accessible primary care,” Clark said.
That idea took form back in 1969, with a nun and a priest – Sister Paulette Honeygosky and Father Don Fisher – who were then ministering in the former St. Francis DeSales Parish in McKees Rocks. Seeing new needs emerge as the town slipped into a downward economic spiral, they found support from the diocese to form a community advocacy organization.
Two years later, they formed a health council to take on growing demands for affordable healthcare. Initially, the council operated out of a storefront on Chartiers Avenue and relied on a small team of medical professionals who volunteered their time to the cause.
When Ryan arrived in 1975, he said he and the other staff “began to see the desperate needs of the elderly,” and so sought out funding options to expand the operation.
The answer came through funding the federal government began releasing in the 1960s through President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty legislation.
“Once we found the federal health money, then we were able to hire and really bring in some fantastic professional doctors,” Ryan said.
The steady stream of federal dollars also enabled the organization to relocate to their current home on Thompson Avenue in 1983, which afforded space for a whole range of new services.
Today, the Sto-Rox Neighborhood Health Council maintains a second site in Allentown and employs five doctors and two nurses across both facilities. Recently, the organization has steered resources into providing COVID-19 tests and vaccinations.
Clark said the organization’s commitment to providing “care that works to reduce health disparities,” has remained unchanged since its founding.
“I’m committed to the model,” she said. “The fact that they’ve been doing it for 50 years is heartening for me, but also a challenge to make sure it continues.”
Information about the 50-year gala and forms for submitting your stories can be found at: www.storox.org.