By Carolyn Hardin, Development Consultant

Diane Rittenhouse, Mountain Family Health Centers’ first executive director, passed away May 17, 2017.She was instrumental both in starting and expanding Mountain Family, and led the organization for twenty-three years, until 2004.

Ms. Rittenhouse and a group of motivated citizens founded the Gilpin County Health Clinic in 1978 in Blackhawk, Colorado, when the town’s only physician retired, which left the area with no provider. Under the umbrella of the Red Cross, the group formed a non-profit and set out to find a new provider. Federal seed money was obtained, space was donated in a stone building built in the 1800s by the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), a family nurse practitioner was hired, and the clinic was born.

So, too, was the foundation of Mountain Family Health Centers (MFHC)—committed citizens joining together to address the lack of access to care for the underserved. In 1982, a second clinic was opened in Nederland, and the name changed to Columbine Family Health Centers.

In the 1990s, the Roaring Fork Valley faced a crisis when the only pediatric practice accepting Medicaid suddenly closed its doors. The task force working on this issue was put in contact with Columbine by CCHN. Ms. Rittenhouse, undaunted by the long distance to Glenwood Springs, mountain passes or snowy roads, worked with the group to open Mountain Family Health Centers in Glenwood Springs in 2000. She led this charge because of her firm commitment to access to quality medical care for the underserved.

From its origins as the Gilpin Health Clinic that Ms. Rittenhouse and the group of citizens from Blackhawk built, Mountain Family Health Centers today serves 18,000 persons in nine clinic sites in Garfield, Eagle, and Pitkin Counties. (The Front Range clinics were closed due to changing demographics and providers—Nederland in 2006 and Blackhawk in 2014).

I first met Ms. Rittenhouse when she came to Glenwood to discuss Columbine’s expansion to this side of the divide. There were a lot of people with very strong opinions on the task force, and Ms. Rittenhouse was so strong in making her case, and getting the group to look beyond their own agency’s concerns. It was certainly a leap of faith to expand here, but she had the vision and the heart to make it happen.

Many Mountain Family staff members and friends shared their memories of Ms. Rittenhouse once the news of her passing was out. Here are some of them:

From Ross Brooks, MFHC CEO

“Diane Rittenhouse was the first real-live Colorado Community Health Center leader I met in October 2002. I had come from Washington, D.C., to work at CCHN and Elena Thomas-Faulkner took me to the Columbine Family Health Center in Nederland, Colorado, to get some CHC mud on my hands. Diane quickly washed the D.C. politics off of me and showed me a patient-centered, community-organized, model of caring for all. I was hooked and knew that’s what I wanted to do when I grew up. Diane was direct, committed, rarely took no for an answer, and a stalwart for access for all.

“Diane Rittenhouse’s commitment to access to health care as a human right was clear from our beginnings, and fuels the Community Health movement today. I’m deeply grateful to Diane for her vision for our organization and communities.

“As we said our goodbyes after our first meeting in October 2002, Diane grabbed me: ‘Wait, I have something important for you.’ She hustled back inside the Nederland clinic and shuffled through a pile of paper then handed over a beautiful poster. My brain raced as I thought it was perhaps an artistic flowchart of the health disparities sustain and spread model, or a prequel to the Bodenheimer building blocks for primary care, or perhaps the most beautiful strategic plan ever painted in watercolor. I was wrong. With the pride of a mother, Diane said, “Frozen Dead Guy Days, Colorado’s most frigidly fun festival, you gotta come.”

From Peter Leibeig, Liebeig-Shepard, LLC, and former CEO, Clίnica Family Health

“I remember Diane well from my early days at Clinica back in the late 80s. I think she was the finance director at Columbine when we first met. I recall her smiling face and her deep roots in Gilpin County. She was smart, dedicated, a leader at CCHN on many occasions and a health center pioneer. It’s quite a shock to hear of her passing. She’ll be on my mind. Frozen Dead Guy Days lives on in Nederland.”

From Elena Thomas Faulkner of Clinica Tepayac:

“In my community development role at CCHN (years ago), I had the privilege to work with Diane as she was exploring whether/how to open a site in Glenwood Springs. Diane and I made a number of snowy treks to Glenwood to talk with community and health leaders. During that process Diane always focused on understanding the community need and thinking creatively on how to address it. She was astute in assessing local politics and making the most of small windows of opportunity. She knew that rural and resort communities face unique challenges and had a fierce commitment to meeting those-even when it took a big lead of faith and organizational and personal stretches. I learned a lot from Diane’s humble and very competent leadership.”

From Chris Tonozzi, MD, MFHC physician and Director of Data Quality:

“I was a family medicine resident and then physician at Clinica during the years Elena talks about. I was bound and determined to get a CHC opened in Glenwood, and the sentiment was that it would be better served as an extension of a current CHC. Diane had the ambition and tenacity to take that on. She can be credited with 18,000 patients a year now being served in Western Colorado! But rather than that ambition and tenacity, she’ll be remembered for the care she took with her organization. She treated it with the love usually reserved for family. Keep spreading that love!”

From Marguerite Salazar, Colorado Commissioner of Insurance, and former CEO of Valley-Wide

“My best times with Diane usually happened when we would be in D.C. for our NACHC meetings. We were part of the rural caucus and that drew us to each other-that and red wine. Her blue eyes and freckles reminded me of Pippi Longstocking and her pragmatism always made me worry less. ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’ She would add, ‘If things go to hell, I’ll retire.’ And she did-not because things went to hell, but because she wanted to.”

From Dave Adamson, MFHC CEO 2004-2012

“Diane was a remarkable leader and mountain girl (her roots in Gilpin County go deep into that rock) with a heart of gold. What MFHC is today is mainly due to her vision, dedication, intelligence, and love for people. I never met anyone who worked harder or with more humility.”

Thank you, Diane Rittenhouse, for birthing Mountain Family Health Centers and giving us our wings.