At noon on Wednesdays, five co-workers gather around a rickety table. They have lunch and talk about dozens of kids.
Sometimes they laugh. Sometimes they cry. It goes with the job at the Addyston Babies' Milk Fund Pediatric & Prenatal Clinic. The clinic serves children in this blue-collar riverside community that's so small the bait shop and pizza parlor are under one roof.
"Join us for lunch?" asked Kathy Obert, the clinic's medical assistant.
So I did. Out River Road, past rows of chemical storage tanks and into the old village of Addyston. It was another Lunch with Cliff where it's my treat in exchange for people saying what's on their minds.
"We're not just employees. We're friends," Kathy says of her co-workers as we walk through the year-old Colonial-style, red-brick building. "If I have a problem, I can call these guys night or day."
These feelings extend to the clinic's patients and their parents. They're more than names on charts.
"They're family," says Kathy.
It's a big family. In 1996, the Addyston clinic treated 4,980 children. It is the busiest of the four pediatric facilities run by the Babies' Milk Fund. The fund was established in 1909 to sell pasteurized milk at an affordable price to low-income mothers to keep their babies healthy.
Today, the clinic does not dispense milk. But its employees still care more than they're paid to about the health and welfare of kids and their moms and dads.
Staffers cuddle babies. Nurses tell parents to stop smoking in front of their asthmatic kids. They give encouragement. And sometimes, they just listen.
"Lots of these parents don't have anyone to talk to," Kathy says. "No one tells them they're doing a good job. We do that here, just like family."
That concern shows throughout lunch. The phone never stops ringing. Sherry Geghan, the clinic's receptionist, never stops answering it.
"I don't feel comfortable turning off the phone," she says, returning to her sandwich after the umpteenth interruption. "Somebody's child might be sick. You never know when they need us."
Dr. Richard E. Wolf, a retired pediatrician working two days a week at the clinic, admires her dedication. It reminds him of a family he saw earlier in the day.
He treated a teen-ager and talked with the young man's father. The doctor learned that the father was raising a family of college students.
In an inner-city clinic, the doctor notes, "you could see patients for a month without hearing anyone talk about college. But this man has a whole family of them."
Bev Stamper, the clinic's nurse and manager, describes the facility's clientele. The working poor from Addyston, Cleves, Sayler Park, Hamilton and Indiana.
"Proud people," she says softly.
Sometimes, that pride can get in the way. When parents are poor and can't pay their bills, they can be too embarrassed to show up at a clinic's door with a sick baby.
Sherry, back from another phone call, tells how she nips that in the bud.
"Money is no object here," she informs the parents. "You come in. Your child is sick. We'll worry about the money later." Rosie Evans, the clinic's nurse practitioner and unofficial mom, hears this and wipes a tear from her eye.
"My husband is a physician," she says. "His partners always wondered why I worked here." Patting Sherry's shoulder, she adds: "That's why."
Bev looks down at her lunch. "I was a Babies' Milk Fund kid," she says. "We lived in the projects, in English Woods. We went to a Milk Fund clinic."
When she became a nurse, she wanted to extend the same helping hand she received. So she went to work where they cuddle infants and encourage parents to read to their children.
It's a place where they answer the phone and strive to help little kids realize their dreams. It's the Addyston clinic where everyone cares.
Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Available to speak to groups. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.