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A new optometry clinic, a pilot medical assisting school and bilingual cooking classes are all in the works for the Sonoma Community Health Center in the coming year.

The center on Sonoma Highway treated 6,883 people in 2017, offering a wide variety of services in its 18,671-square-foot facility. A dental clinic with six chairs, gynecology, podiatry, mental health counseling and nutritional counseling are just a few of them.

CEO Cheryl Johnson said the 26-year-old center’s 93 employees are gearing up for a busy year.

“I told my staff to rest up because 2019 is going to be really something,” Johnson said. “We have a lot of plans for growth.”

Johnson said she anticipates that the center will see around 7,200 patients in 2019 and slightly more patient visits than this year. Final numbers weren’t available for this year, but there were around 34,000 visits in 2017. The nonprofit’s annual operating budget is $10 million.

Community health centers are playing an increasingly important role in California, especially as access to health care diminishes for many rural communities. There are more than 1,300 such centers serving 6.5 million patients in California, according to Carmela Casellano-Garcia, CEO of the California Primary Care Association.

The centers primarily treat people living below the poverty line, but they are federally mandated to treat anyone who shows up asking for treatment. Fees are charged on a sliding scale.

“What we do is prevention and management,” Johnson said. “So if you are managing a disease like diabetes or hypertension and somewhere along the way that management doesn’t work typically you would go to a hospital.”

The mission of the nearly 11,000 community health centers nationwide is to serve people who otherwise would be without medical care. Every three years, the Sonoma Valley Community Center surveys the community to find out what people need, and bases such things as the new optometry clinic on the responses.

Johnson said she anticipates that the optometry clinic will open in the fall of 2019.

“We don’t have space for it in our existing facility, so we are going to be figuring out how to redo the facility. We probably are going to have to move people out of our existing space so we can have optometry at the site,” Johnson said.

“I’ll be having a couple of conversations with the city about planning,” Johnson said. “And it’s a lot of paperwork. We’ll be filing paperwork with the federal government to allow us to do the service,” she said.

Because the clinic must meet state clinical facility requirements, Johnson anticipates doing a lot of remodeling to get the clinic going, she said.

The medical assisting school will admit local residents and will open as a pilot program in the spring or summer with 25 people. The program will include internships at the center and possibly at Alliance Medical Center in Healdsburg.

With many local businesses and agencies desperate to find employees because of the high cost of living in the Valley, the idea behind the program is to tap people already living here, help them get the skills and then put them to work.

Classes would meet at the center on Sonoma Highway, according to Johnson.

In the interests of keeping people healthy, another basic mission of community health centers, the Ceres Community Project will offer bilingual cooking classes at the center starting in January.

“We’ll do one class in Spanish and one in English per month all year, a total of 24 classes, hands-on preparation of food which I think is exciting,” Johnson said. The classes are free.

As Californians and Sonoma Valley residents are keenly aware, diet is one of the biggest factors affecting health.

“Health centers have a more than 50-year mission of not only illness prevention, but addressing the factors that may cause illness,” said Amy Simmons, spokeswoman for the National Association of Health Centers.

“Health centers look beyond the medical chart at the health of the whole person and what factors in the community might affect the whole person,” Simmons said.

To that end, Sonoma’s center offers immunization, breast cancer screening, family planning and substance abuse counseling, as well as classes in decompression yoga.

Health centers are governed by community boards that must have a 51 percent patient majority, helping to ensure that the needs of people in the area are met.

When Sonoma Valley Hospital closed its obstetrics department, the Sonoma Valley Community Health Center bought fetal monitoring equipment from the hospital in order to do tests for pregnant women, helping to fill the gap.

Dr. Paul Amara, a local obstetrician who delivered hundreds of babies at the hospital, works at the center as well as other medical facilities in the area. Women are referred to other facilities such as Queen of the Valley Medical Center in Napa for the birth of their children.

“We are still going to offer prenatal services,” but the center doesn’t offer birthing services and has not gotten additional patients in the wake of the closure of the hospital’s obstetrics department, Johnson said.

Reach Janis Mara at janis.mara@sonomanews.com.