"Every child deserves or has a right to be seen and have their needs taken care of."
— Connie Blackwell MANU'02

No Child Turned Away

Alumna runs award-winning pediatric clinic for underserved kids

By Amy Gage

Eighty percent of the families served by North Metro Pediatrics are on medical assistance or have no insurance at all. Even if they own a car, they may not be able to afford gas. If a child has an ear infection, the mother or father may face a choice between paying for the clinic visit or the antibiotic.

Welcome to Connie Blackwell's world.

The clinic she co-founded and runs in a northern suburb of Minneapolis is the only nonprofit, sliding-fee practice run by nurse practitioners in the Twin Cities. A 2002 alumna of St. Catherine's graduate-level pediatric nurse practitioner program, Blackwell does the work "because I've always loved kids" — and because the University teaches its students to go out and make a difference.

"The whole culture of St. Kate's is one of giving back to the community," says Blackwell, a mother of two grown children, for whom volunteering is an expression of her faith.

According to a video produced last summer by Mpls.St.Paul magazine — which named Blackwell one of its 2012 "Outstanding Nurses" — North Metro Pediatrics turns away no child for lack of ability to pay. "Every child deserves or has a right to be seen and have their needs taken care of," she tells the interviewer.

Those needs often include complications from obesity or asthma. Her patients may live in substandard housing with dust or mold, and the majority of children come from families that can't afford fresh fruits and vegetables or health club memberships. The result is diabetes, unchecked asthma, and high cholesterol and high blood pressure at "younger and younger" ages.

"Well children" checkups are a luxury these families can't afford, though Blackwell is proud of the recently expanded dental, social work and mental health services.

Described as "caring, very educated and always cheerful" by the colleague who nominated her for the MSP award, Blackwell oversees a staff of nine healthcare professionals, including six nurse practitioners who write prescriptions and work in consultation with a collaborating physician.

Funding is always a challenge, despite a supportive board of directors made up of an attorney and other professionals, and a history of success with foundation and government grants. The clinic's "month-to-month" existence is made easier by Blackwell's faith — in her God and the good of humankind.

"The Lord has provided immensely here," she explains. "There have been times when we had no money, but something shows up. A check comes in the mail."

Defining Ethical Leadership

When he entered St. Catherine University's Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership (MAOL) program, Michael G. Ferber wanted a challenge beyond a bachelor's degree.

Ferber was among the now 27-year-old program's first graduates in 1988. While in school, he had a family, a full-time job with Fairview Health Systems, and volunteered to raise money for the Blaisdell YMCA in south Minneapolis. A St. Catherine career counselor asked if he would consider fundraising professionally after receiving his degree.

Intrigued, Ferber interned with the University's development office and eventually took a fundraising job with the Fairview Foundation. He went out on his own 14 years ago, raising money for many nonprofit organizations. In November, he received the Outstanding Professional Fundraiser Award from the Minnesota chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals.

Ferber knows he must deal honestly with donors and be a good steward of his clients' money. That focus on ethics was the most important part of the MAOL program to him, and one of many lessons.

"It taught me that you can lead from the middle," Ferber said. "You can even lead from the bottom sometimes, and that is part of what life is."

Ferber also went on to volunteer his fundraising services for many nonprofits, including Can Do Canines, which trains puppies to become assistance dogs to people who have conditions such as epilepsy and autism. Ten years ago, he went beyond fundraising to puppy-raising, taking puppies into his Eagan home, teaching them basic obedience, and training them to be calm and attentive in different situations. He took his latest charge, a standard poodle named Fred, to the award ceremony. MAOL Program Director Rebecca Hawthorne was there, too.

"He turned to me and said, literally, 'The MAOL program changed my life.' This was so lovely to hear from this man at this moment," Hawthorne said. — Nancy Crotti

Michael Ferber.