BIRMINGHAM – When Sandra Ford was just 8 years old, her father took her to the doctor. Back then, Alabama was under segregationist laws, so it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary for young Sandra and her father to wait on one side of the doctor’s office from the time they walked in around 4 p.m. until after 11 p.m. But there was one time a visit to the doctor left an indelible mark on her, which not only shaped her career in medicine, but it also marked the beginning of her spiritual path.
Originally from Montgomery, Dr. Ford’s parents were school teachers in Clayton. During the week, the family would live in Alabama’s Black Belt and in Montgomery on the weekends. The family would do their best if someone got sick during the week. Health care in rural areas back then was different than it is now. It was actually worse.
“During segregation, the doctor could only take so many patients. So we sat,” Dr. Ford explained. “But, I still remember that day very vividly. I was 8 years old sitting in the doctor’s office, and there was this elderly woman just suffering sitting in the chairs with us. It seemed like they were passing her by. I couldn’t understand why no one could help her. It bothered me a lot…and then I watched her take her last breath. At the age of 8, I watched her die.”
That one visit to the doctor as a child changed Dr. Ford’s life. It planted a seed, which grew through the years. “This is how A Promise to Help started,” she said.
A Promise to Help is a nonprofit medical missionary organization founded by Dr. Ford and her husband, Henry, which is now in its 16th year. The organization serves Alabama’s Black Belt counties, including Barbour, Bullock, Butler, Choctaw, Dallas, Greene, Hale, Lowndes, Macon, Marengo, Montgomery, Perry, Russell, Sumter and Wilcox Counties.
“We’ve been to the most underserved, underprivileged and underinsured counties in this state. A Promise to Help is a volunteer-based organization whose goals are to assist in eliminating health care disparities in Alabama. We have physicians, nurses, ministers, media specialists, counselors, social workers, business leaders, skilled laborers, community activists and others all working together with one thing in mind — helping others,” Dr. Ford said.
The organization hosts volunteers worldwide who come to Alabama once a month to visit communities in the most need. There are 12 missions a year, and although the organization is designated as a nonprofit, it operates almost completely on the generosity of others by donations, not grants.
“We’re both ordained ministers, so this is a ministry for us. It’s a holistic health care initiative where we can minister to the entire body. We have a medical team, a mentoring team, a ministry team, and a team to address their immediate needs such as clothing and food. This is truly a mission of God because we don’t enjoy the benefit of grants. This is just people helping other people. This is the hand of God moving all of us. People give what they can, and we accept that to give to others,” Dr. Ford said.
Each month’s mission presents its own logistical challenges. Using Dr. Ford’s small medical practice in Birmingham as a base of operations, donations of clothing, medicine, equipment and other necessities are stored in every spare space waiting to be deployed once the location has been secured. After local county resources and ministries are contacted and a liaison is in place, it’s time to roll out the mobile health clinic.
The mobile health clinic has two exam beds and is larger on the inside than it looks from the outside. It serves a higher purpose to bring more than just needed health care and medicine to the residents of what Dr. Ford and some volunteers have come to call “Alabama’s Third World.”
“It takes us a while for us to gain the trust of the people in these communities. So many different studies and research projects have come through these areas looking for information, but these things never really touched these people’s lives. And that’s what we want to do. Believe it or not, we have no agenda. This is just something that God has put on our hearts to do…to help,” Dr. Ford said.
A Promise to Help is part of the Spirit of Luke Charitable Foundation™ cofounded by the Fords. If you would like more information about either organization, to make a donation, or to volunteer, visit www.spiritofluke.com.