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Upstanding Citizens: Rockdale recognizes Morrises as outstanding volunteers

Photo by Kristen Ralph

Photo by Kristen Ralph

CONYERS -- For several years, Janice Morris worked as an insurance adjuster, routinely looking for ways to deny claims customers made to pay their medical bills. Her bosses expected her to reject at least 3,000 claims monthly, she said.

The work emotionally drained Morris.

"It took just about everything out of my body," she said.

But now, the Rockdale resident has come full circle. She and her husband Tolbert Morris run Helping Hands Free Health Clinic, located in north Rockdale County, which serves under-insured or uninsured area residents, primarily those in Rockdale County.

"I just love it. It's like a dream come true because you really find your destiny and your passion," said Mrs. Morris.

Rockdale County Commission Chairman Richard Oden recently honored the Morrises as the co-recipients of the Charles P. Cole Citizen Involvement Award. The award is designed to recognize Rockdale County residents who perform extraordinary volunteer service to the community.

"We were so surprised to get it," said Janice Morris.

A former Rockdale County School Board member and current Rockdale County sheriff's deputy, Tolbert Morris planted the seeds for the clinic in 2001 when he began a program, Helping Hands Community Outreach, which distributed free refurbished computers to low-income families.

Helping Hands has given away roughly 400 of the donated computers to families referred by the Rockdale County school system, the local Boys & Girls Club and the court system.

"The purpose of donating the computers was to help students do their homework and we really found out through that process that it wasn't enough. Students needed more," said Tolbert Morris.

Along with technology, Helping Hands also began to provide free tutoring services to area children through after-school and summer programs. Today, the tutoring program operates with volunteers fanning out to various locations in Rockdale County to bolster kids' academic pursuits.

Interaction with local school children led the Morrises to discover that many of the students' health care needs were not being met. The Morrises witnessed a gamut of health problems, from obesity to visual impairment.

After partnering with Georgia State University in 2006, the Morrises started the Helping Hands Outreach Free Health Clinic, and provided a series of health fairs for Rockdale County high school students.

With part-time hours, the clinic treats patients with acute and chronic illnesses, such as diabetes and hypertension. The clinic also offers physical exams, blood work, cholesterol screening, sexually transmitted disease testing, mammogram referrals, women's wellness, prostate screening, dental referrals and a prescription assistance program.

While the clinic operates on a budget of roughly $40,000 a year provided through donations and grants, the mainstay of the program is its volunteers. Doctors, nurses, physicians assistants and nursing students, including those from Georgia State University, the Rockdale County school system and Rockdale Medical Center, donate their time.

Much of the staff, as well as equipment and lab work, is provided through Rockdale Medical Center.

"We really want to thank Rockdale Medical Center," said Janice Morris.

The Morrises said they aim to take the burden off of local hospital emergency rooms by offering the free health services. To date, the Helping Hands Outreach Clinic has served over 4,000 patients. With the recent economic downturn, Janice Morris said the health clinic has doubled the number of patients it sees weekly from an average of 27 in 2008 to 63 today.

Though the clinic is situated on the perimeter of the predominantly Latino neighborhood of Lakeview Estates, Helping Hands serves a broad spectrum of races, with the latest statistics at 57 percent Latino, 32 percent white and 28 percent black.

The Morrises are dedicated to improving the lives of the underprivileged and believe that in order for families to be successful they must be healthy, educated and have access to technology.

"You have to have those. There's no way around it. If you don't, you'll be left behind," said Janice Morris.

With needs constantly increasing, the Morrises would like to expand their services and welcome any new funding sources. For more information, visit www.helpinghandsga.com.

While the Morrises appreciate the Citizen Involvement Award, the couple said it's compassion for others that drives them.

"We're not doing it for recognition. We're doing it because the end is great," said Tolbert Morris.