CLEARWATER — Life has come full circle for Dunedin's renowned bird artist Ernest C. Simmons.
At the beginning of his art career in the 1970s and '80s, he had little money but needed medical care and went to the Clearwater Free Clinic on N Fort Harrison Avenue, where he received care on several occasions.
Things have turned around for Simmons, whose artwork now fetches as much as $28,000 per piece and whose paintings can be seen on postcards, tote bags and T-shirts across the country.
Now, Simmons can afford to pay for medical care. But, to give back to the Clearwater Free Clinic, he is donating a $4,800 piece that will be auctioned at the clinic's seventh annual Martinis and Matisse fundraiser tonight.
"I didn't have health insurance and wasn't making a lot of money and struggling to make ends meet," Simmons said this week at his Dunedin studio. "It was amazing that you could go to this clinic and get treatment for free. It really helped me out."
The Clearwater Free Clinic was started in 1977 and provides medical care at no cost to those who do not qualify for government assistance and who cannot afford private medical care. Patients pay what they can. All the clinic's funding comes from private and civic donations and grants. There are no regular, state, local or federal government funds.
Today's fundraiser accounts for 25 percent of the nonprofit clinic's $450,000 operating budget, which provides $1.9 million worth of medical services, said Jeannie Shapiro, the clinic's executive director.
More than 100 volunteer physicians, nurses, paramedics, nurse practitioners, pharmacists and clerks assist patients.
In 1999, the clinic saw 6,850 patients. Last year, there were 13,699 patient visits.
"The face of the uninsured has changed," Shapiro said. "The perception of the free clinic patients has been one of homeless and indigent.
"Since our recent economic crisis, we are seeing people who had insurance and lost it. They are mostly people who don't make enough money to afford their health care."
Ted Kensil, 60, of Largo has been using the clinic for six years. He said the doctors have brought him through two bouts with cancer.
"They care," Kensil said. "They have sent me to, like, six specialists and given me, like, $500 a month in free medicine. I can't say enough about them. And it's not only to me. There are a lot of people who will say the same thing."
Demorris A. Lee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4174.