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Speech Upon Acceptance of St. Louis Award: Opening St. Louis' doors to all

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 14, 2011 - Hola and welcome to Casa de Salud (House of Health). Nuestra casa es su casa (Our home is your home!) -- and that my friends is the extent of my Spanish. Obviously, I am not Hispanic, and so many people ask me why am I so passionate about serving the Hispanic community. In the simplest possible terms, it is because they are here and need our help and because they offer our community an opportunity for population growth and increased economic prosperity.

So I accept this award in the name of those we serve: new immigrants, the working poor who find barriers to accessing basic human services in our region. And I accept this award in honor of all those who serve our patients day in and day out, boots on the ground, welcoming them out of isolation and into the embrace of our community.

Two years ago this facility was a former auto parts store used for storage by Saint Louis University. Today it is a medical clinic that is serving over 500 patient visits a month and when our expansion is complete will be capable of accommodating 10,000 visits in 2012. Those are thousands of patients who would have either gone without care or gone to an emergency room for care. All of this made possible through the generosity of Father Biondi and Saint Louis University.

We lease this space, built-out to our specifications, from the university for $1 a year, including utilities, security and maintenance. Father, thank YOU! I should also mention that Father is a  first-generation Italian-American immigrant. He believes, as the international Jesuit community believes, that immigrants all over the world need to be treated with respect and dignity. These are people looking for a better life and a place to call HOME.

I want to thank the St. Louis Award committee made up of some of our region's most influential citizens for recognizing the importance of the work we do at Casa de Salud and its implications for long-term economic prosperity for the St. Louis Region. David Kemper, Valerie Bell, Bill Danforth, Craig Schnuck, Andy Taylor, Andy Newman, Arnold Donald, Annie Schlafly and Ann Liberman.

I am extremely proud to be honored by the Wohl Foundation, created by David P. Wohl, the founder of Wohl Shoe Co. My father would have been especially proud as he was the president of International Retail Shoe Co. and, though a competitor, worked closely with David back in the hey-days of the shoe business in Missouri.

My father was the son of Polish immigrants who came to America in the early 1900s to escape the persecution of the Jews, only to find that they were isolated and marginalized in this country, too. They lived in what many considered a Jewish ghetto in Buffalo, N.Y.; they didn't speak English and had a hard time earning a living for their family. My father quit school in the 10th grade to help support his family; and, against all odds, he went on to become the president of International Retail Shoe Co. and served on the board of Interco for many years. If there are members of the Wohl family in the audience, would you please stand and be recognized. Thank you!

I am also humbled and honored to be in the prestigious company of prior recipients of the St. Louis Award, some of whom are here with us today. Theresa Wilson, Joe Edwards, Father Biondi, John McDonnell, Andy Newman and Bill Danforth representing the Danforth Foundation are in the audience. Thank you!

Casa was founded in the spring of 2009 when two other agencies serving Hispanic immigrants went out of business. Maxine and I had been contributing financial support to one of those agencies and were disappointed to hear that it was closing its doors. We have always believed that a healthy, diverse, growing workforce of new immigrants is vital to the success of our region. That is why we invested in La Clinica, and that is still the driving force behind our current involvement with Casa de Salud.

I have a new favorite quote by Steven Peters: "Where ever we are, we need those friends who are willing to cross over from their neighborhood to ours." And once I crossed over everything changed. I began to see the real needs of these hard-working, family-oriented people who are living an isolated and marginalized existence in our community. We employ them but we don't take care of them, at least not until now.

With a strong and determined founding sponsor in Saint Louis University, we were able to enlist others to our cause including the Washington University School of Medicine. Nine months later, in January 2010, we started serving patients with a new mission and vision. We would not be a medical home, but a clinic that provides episodic health and wellness services and refers patients to other providers for long-term continuity of care.

We currently collaborate with over 40 established community agencies. They include all of the federally qualified health centers like Grace Hill, Family Care and Peoples Health Centers, the city and county health departments, Barnes Jewish, Children's and Cardinal Glennon hospitals, the St. Louis and St. Louis County Public Libraries, the Girls Scouts, the YMCA, Provident and South Side Day Nursery to name a few. We are a regional clinic serving 10 countries in Missouri and Illinois. We operate with a volunteer and professional model having only eight paid staff and more than 100 volunteers who have logged over 5,000 volunteer hours this year. Our costs are low but the quality of our care is extremely high and the outcomes for patients are dramatic. We keep people out of local emergency rooms and save the health-care system millions of dollars annually.

We believe that health and wellness include physical, mental, social, emotional, spiritual and environmental health. Our services reflect that belief as we provide clinical care, occupational and physical therapy, social and mental health services, spiritual guidance, health literacy programs and nutritional counseling along with cooking classes. Next year we will offer podiatry and hopefully have a community garden for our patients. A critically underserved area that we are not addressing is basic dentistry. There is an urgent need to build capacity across the entire network of providers for this desperately needed service.

Now that you know how we got started and what we do at Casa de Salud, I'd like to talk about St. Louis and why Maxine and I are so committed to its future. St. Louis has been very good to us. I was raised here and, as David pointed out, went to high school here, which seems to be a very important credential to have.

Maxine is originally from Coral Gables, Fla., but has lived in St. Louis since 1976 when she was brought here by the May Department Stores to work on David Farrell's operating staff. She went on to become the executive vice president of Venture stores where I was a mid-level executive and that is where we met. Lucky me! When we decided to get married I left Venture to start my own business, NewSpace, in 1984.

Maxine stayed with the May Co. and became president of its largest division, Payless ShoeSource, in 1992. We commuted to Topeka, Kan., for four years; and, frankly, were not happy being disconnected from our full life in St. Louis. In 1997 when the May Co. decided to spin off Payless, Maxine decided she'd had enough of corporate life and wanted to do something more creative. We also knew then that St. Louis was the place we wanted to call home, no more commuting. And that is also when we got serious about making a positive difference in the community.

We love St. Louis because it is our home. We're not going to LA to chase a fortune like some people we know! Seriously, we are happy for Albert and Deidre and hope that they have found a place they too can call home. There simply isn't anything better. Is it possible that part of Albert's decision was that his family might feel more AT HOME in a community that is 45 percent Hispanic? Yes, LA has 8.1 million Hispanics living in the region.

St. Louis was where we wanted to live FOREVER (as Father Biondi likes to say to his graduating classes "Sons and Daughters of Saint Louis University FOREVER!!). And that was the beginning of a romance with St. Louis for which we can see no end. It is a great place to live, work, raise a family (though we have no children, we have lots of kids in our lives) and most important it is a place where we can make a difference. It is also a community that has embraced us and helped us be successful. Our companies where founded and have flourished here. We are committed to the hundreds of employees who helped us be successful and want to make sure that St. Louis continues to be a great place for them to raise their families. Simply put, we want to give back to the community that has given so much to us.

St. Louis also has a rich history. We are a city founded and sustained by immigrants ... first by the French who joined Native Americans living in this region, then came the Germans, English, Italians, Irish, Eastern Europeans, Asians, Bosnians, Ethiopians, Middle Easterners and Hispanics.

150 years ago, St. Louis had the highest percentage of immigrants of any city in the nation. Over the next 50 years, St. Louis arguably enjoyed its greatest growth, culminating in the 1904 World's Fair. However, by 1920 St. Louis had gone the other direction and become provincial in its attitudes. As a consequence over the next 60 years the city saw population decline and urban decay.

Once again in 1980, the immigration story in our region started to change when refugees from the war-torn Balkans were re-settled in our town by a remarkable and resourceful agency the International Institute. It is said that there are more Bosnians in our region than any other place outside the Balkans. There has also been some resettlement of Russian Jews, Asians, Ethiopians and Middle Easterners.

Then came the people I think of as economic refugees from Mexico and Central America. They came here from California and the southwest where they were not always made to feel welcome. Though our region made no concerted effort to attract them, we seemed glad to have a new group of hard-working immigrants to mow our lawns, manicure our golf courses, repair our roofs, raise our babies, clean our houses, make the beds in our hotels and hospitals and cook and serve the food in our restaurants.

Since 2000, St. Louis has seen a 40 percent increase in the number of new immigrants settling in our region -- this at a time when our city's population has been in decline and the county's growth has slowed to a crawl. So imagine where we would be if those immigrants hadn't come to the St. Louis region over the past 10 years!

Each immigrant group that came here either created or revitalized neighborhoods from the Hill to Kerry Patch, from the Bevo area to Cherokee Street. A 2011 GeoScape market report estimates the St. Louis regional market is 22nd in the nation in total population with 3.2 million people. We, however, are 75th with only 2.3 percent or 75,000 Hispanics.

The country is 16.1 percent Hispanic, L.A. is 45 percent, Chicago is 26 percent, Denver 22 percent and Kansas City 7.5 percent. By 2050, it is estimated that our country will be 30 percent Hispanic, and unless we do something soon we are going to miss the opportunity to take advantage of this significant demographic change.

Rahm Emanuel recently announced a new initiative to make Chicago the most immigrant friendly city in the world. Detroit and Dayton have both announced new initiatives to attract more immigrants to their regions. Why? Because new immigrants can add diversity to segregated neighborhoods, fill half-empty schools with kids who are anxious to learn, and revitalize both urban and rural communities. Research shows that they are risk takers, entrepreneurs and 50 percent more likely to start new businesses than native-born citizens.

They obviously have a positive impact on population growth and create a demand for housing, goods and services. They are education oriented and willing to do whatever it takes to make sure that their children live better lives.

Let me give you a couple of examples. George Paz was raised in southern Illinois, the son of a Mexican immigrant. George's father insisted that his children get college educations. George did just that earning a bachelor's degree from UMSL and is now the CEO of Express Scripts. Ed Macias' father immigrated to Texas from Mexico to further his education and to educate his children. Today his son is the provost and top academic officer of a world-class institution of higher learning - Washington University - and I am proud to say he serves on the board of Casa de Salud.

We have a strong and growing business community, great cultural institutions and universities, some of the finest hospitals and medical schools in the world. We are a world leader in plant sciences, the world center of chess and the home of the World Series champion Cardinals.

However, underlying all of this success, there are serious issues that threaten our future and are keeping us from being a place that more people want to call HOME. We struggle to keep our best and brightest students in St. Louis when they finish their educations. We have huge health and educational disparities, segregated neighborhoods and a struggling urban core. Addressing these issues is complex and somewhat daunting, but I believe progress is possible.

Look what we've accomplished in just couple of years at Casa de Salud. One key component of the solution is to welcome more new immigrants to our region. We also need to continue to improve public education, because new immigrant families want to live in neighborhoods were they have access to a quality education for their children. We should focus on Hispanic immigrants because they are the largest and fastest growing segment of the nation's population.

But we cannot invite them here without first building an infrastructure of care and a culture of inclusion. I believe that Casa de Salud and its 40 community partners, along with well-established organizations like the International Institute and the Urban League, can be the foundation for this transformational change.

What we need next is to form a regional commission focused on strengthening that infrastructure, promoting a culture of inclusion and welcoming more new immigrants to join us in a celebration of diversity, population growth and economic prosperity. We also need to make sure that our state does not pass any more restrictive laws that make this job more difficult.

In closing, I want to, once again, thank the St. Louis Award committee for selecting me and the work we are doing at Casa de Salud for the 2011 St. Louis Award. I am proud to be the recipient of this prestigious award and grateful to the committee and this community for supporting our efforts. I pledge to continue to work diligently to make the St. Louis region a place that more people are proud to call HOME!

Bob Fox Speech Upon Acceptance of St. Louis Award

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