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Take Five: Businessman wins St. Louis Award for bringing health care to Hispanics

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 8, 2011 - Bob Fox's story typifies the up-by-your-bootstraps mentality of the American Dream: His Yiddish-speaking grandparents immigrated to America from Poland. His father grew into a successful businessman with only a 10th-grade education.

Now, Fox lives to "pay it forward" by providing the new wave of Hispanic immigrants with culturally sensitive health care at Casa de Salud, Spanish for "house of health."

Fox's efforts for Hispanic immigrants have earned him the 2011 St. Louis Award, established in 1931 to recognize a person whose outstanding service brings honor and development to the St. Louis region.

Before launching the health clinic, Fox's background was in business. Fox earned an MBA from Saint Louis University after serving in the U.S. Air Force in France. In 1984, he founded NewSpace Inc., a closet and home organizing business. That same year, he also married his wife, Maxine Clark, who went on to found Build-A-Bear Workshops.

As their businesses succeeded, Fox and Clark began giving back to the St. Louis community. In 2005, the couple created the Maxine Clark and Bob Fox Family Foundation, which supports local causes, mostly in education and public health. The two are also founding donors of KIPP Charter Schools, the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit at Children's Hospital, the chair of the dean of Goldfarb School of Nursing and the Raymond and Alberta Slavin professorship at Saint Louis University Medical School, as well as major donors to the St. Louis Zoo, St. Louis Public School Foundation, St. Louis Public Libraries, Washington University and Saint Louis University. They have also contributed to the Beacon.

Unsurprisingly, considering their history of donations and sponsorships, the couple also supported La Clinica, a medical center for Hispanics. The center shut down in 2009 at the same time as a similar clinic, Accion Social Comunitaria, leaving a major hole in public health services for Hispanic residents whose language, legal status, cultural differences or finances made medical visits a major challenge.

Fox decided to step up and find a solution. Working with SLU, Fox and his supporters created a health clinic in an old auto parts store near the medical campus. The result is Casa de Salud, a health care portal, providing free services in Spanish and, most importantly, connecting patients to existing long-term care programs in St. Louis.

The regional clinic serves about 700 patients a month with a staff of 30 volunteer doctors. In 2011, volunteers have logged more than 5,000 hours at the clinic. Because donations and volunteer work keep costs low, doctors at Casa de Salud can treat a patient for about $75, much cheaper and easier than the emergency room visits their patients might have made had their conditions otherwise gone untreated.

The Beacon caught up with Fox after the award announcement. Here are excerpts from that interview:

You've lived in St. Louis most of your life, graduating from Clayton High School in 1961. What does the region have going for it? What brings you back here?

Fox: I always like to say the biggest thing it has going for me is it's been home all of my life. It's just nice to be home. I also have established a company here, New Space, in the last 30 years. My employees are here. Their families are here. You like to stay in the community where you can make a difference for those who made a difference for you.

What else does St. Louis have going for it? Cultural institutions like the zoo, the botanical garden, a world-class symphony. It's just a wonderful place to live.

It's also a great place to do business. There are new businesses that start up all the time. We have more business that have started up than have left the community.

We're drawn to the community. And I have a high school connection, which is very important in St. Louis. I think that's why my wife married me.

You and your wife, Maxine, started a foundation to support the St. Louis community. Did mutual love for public service bring you together, or does one bring out the philanthropy of the other?

Fox: Maxine brought out philanthropy and leadership in me. It's more than philanthropy, what we do. Philanthropy is a lot about giving money, and leadership is about boots on the ground, rallying support for issues we care about in the community. And I learned everything I know about that from my wife.

Her mother was a person who always gave back to the community. She was a real leader of that area, and Maxine, I think, really learned from her mom. Her grandfather told her, if you have two nickels, you keep one and you give the other back. So whenever we made a nickel, we gave a nickel back. It taught me the joy of giving back, and it taught me the joy of leadership.

I think until recently when I actually got involved with Casa de Salud, I was always a back-of-the-stage person. My wife has always been a leader, but I haven't taken on my own leadership initiatives until this position with Casa de Salud. It was my first opportunity to take a leadership role in the community and make a difference for a whole community of people who are underserved.

What does Casa de Salud provide for St. Louis residents? Has it been successful?

Fox: It has been a success beyond my wildest imagination and, I think, the community's wildest imagination.

These individuals we serve weren't going in for care for one reason or another. It could have been a language barrier. It could have been concerns about documentation. It could have been a cultural misunderstanding. But it's dangerous to have people out there who do not get medical care.

We had an individual who came in to us a few months ago coughing up blood. He said, "I've been sick for about a year, but I didn't know where to go." He had tuberculosis. He'd been sick for a year. He'd been working in a restaurant. We now have him under care. The tuberculosis is under control. He's no longer working in a restaurant where he can infect others. That's an example of why it's important to welcome people into care, not leave them out there unserved.

It's not only tuberculosis. I mean, even the common cold, there is nowhere they have to go for care where they feel welcome. So they don't go for care, which is more dangerous than extended care in an emergency room. We are really filling a very important public health void in our community.

Is charity work a hobby? A passion? A responsibility?

Fox: I would call it a responsibility and a passion. I'm 68 years old, and I think I've found something that will give my life meaning for the next 30 years. You know, retiring and going to go play golf and bridge just don't fit who I am.

I feel blessed to have found an opportunity to do community leadership where I can actually make a substantial difference in the outcomes for those in our community who are most in need of service. So it is a passion. It is an obligation.

We feel committed to St. Louis. I'm from here. Maxine has put her roots down here. We feel we can continue to make St. Louis a better place than it already is. You don't need to go to Tanzania or South Africa to help those in need. They're right here in our own community. And I think Maxine and I exemplify that.

You're this year's recipient of the St. Louis Award, and you've won service awards in the past, both individually and with your wife. What do awards like this mean to you?

Fox: It's humbling to receive an award like this. When I accept these awards, I accept them with the idea that this is about giving forward, not about what we've accomplished in the past but what the community expects of us in the future. There's a great deal of responsibility to accept these awards.

These awards allow us to have the leverage we need to continue to do our work and to be successful in that work. So when you accept an award like the St. Louis Award, which is very prestigious in our community, other people say, "Gee, what is that Bob Fox up to?" And when they look into it, they might become interested in helping us with our mission of making St. Louis a more inclusive place for others, a place with a growing population and a diverse population.

This is given for the work we have done but with the expectation that we will continue to serve in the community.

Lindsay Toler is a freelance writer. 

Lindsay is the senior engagement producer at St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.