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Ann O'Heir spent most of last week in a small Texas town on the Mexican border volunteering at a free mobile medical clinic started by a one-time co-host of the popular television wildlife series, "Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom."

The Valparaiso resident was uncertain how many of these clinics she has helped out at around the country over the past couple of years, but she won't have to travel very far to lend a hand next year.

She and other organizers have succeeded in securing Indiana's first Remote Area Medical clinic to take place the weekend of July 13 and 14, 2019 at Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Valparaiso.

The clinic, which will offer dental, vision and other medical and veterinary services, will be completely free of charge to patients and open to anyone from across Northwest Indiana, though O'Heir said no one will be turned away.

Among the individuals and groups helping to make the local clinic possible are The Rotary Club of Valparaiso and the Kiwanis Club of Valparaiso.

"We are about saving the children," Kiwanis President Jodi Jackson said.

The clinic contributes to this goal by providing free care to children and also their parents, so the parents are in better shape to care for the family, she said.

The local Rotary Club sees the effort as a great way to give back to the community, President Doug Mogck said.

It will be one of the larger or largest projects the group has undertaken, he said.

"It's going to take a well concerted effort, but we will pull it off," Mogck said.

No one will be questioned about their income

The RAM program was established in 1985 by one-time "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom" host Stan Brock.

The nonprofit organization, which relies on volunteers and contributions, has staged a total of 950 clinics (72 last year), most in the United States, and has provided care to 740,000 people, said RAM media relations specialist Robert Lambert.

This amounts to $120 million in free care, he said. 

All services are free, and no one is questioned about income or other finances, Lambert said. Many who take part work full-time jobs.

O'Heir said it is common for clinic patients to have health insurance, but are unable to afford their share of the costs.

The most sought-after service, by far, is dental care, Lambert said. Dental care is expensive, and 100 million people in the U.S. have no dental insurance. There also is a shortage of dentists, particularly in rural areas.

Vision care also is popular, and participants are able to receive an exam and walk out the same day with eyeglasses, he said. RAM provided 14,444 pairs of glasses last year alone.

General health care is provided, but is in less demand because there are alternatives such as free clinics and emergency rooms, Lambert said.

O'Heir said she hopes to offer veterinary care at next year's local clinic. This will likely be carried out by offering vouchers so people don't need to bring their dogs, cats and other companion animals.

Volunteers and donations needed

Now that a date and location have been secured for a local clinic, work is underway on building a host group of leaders, who will reach out to volunteers and begin fundraising, O'Heir said.

She said 300 volunteers will be needed. Half of that group will need medical expertise, but the other half will not, she said.

Registration for volunteers will begin in September on the RAM website.

Fundraising is needed primarily to cover the two biggest areas of cost, which are the the hotel space for RAM's volunteer staff and food for all the volunteers.

Ten hotel rooms will be needed, she said, and church groups are often turned to for food preparation and donations. Seven meals will be served to volunteers and clinics often provide some food to patients.

Until a site is established for donations, O'Heir suggested donors contribute toward the effort through either the Valparaiso Rotary or Kiwanis clubs.

RAM will provide all the equipment needed for the local clinic, but will all donations will stay local, she said.

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Porter/LaPorte County Courts and Social Justice Reporter

Bob is a 23-year veteran of The Times. He covers county government and courts in Porter County, federal courts, police news and regional issues. He also created the Vegan in the Region blog, is an Indiana University grad and lifelong region resident.