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Baltimore County partners with Set the Captives Free church to open new Woodlawn Health Center at Security Square Mall

Pastor Karen Bethea, senior pastor of Set the Captives Free church in Woodlawn, speaks during a Dec. 8 press conference about the new Woodlawn Health Center, which next year will relocate to the church's O.W.E. Center at Security Square Mall.
Pastor Karen Bethea, senior pastor of Set the Captives Free church in Woodlawn, speaks during a Dec. 8 press conference about the new Woodlawn Health Center, which next year will relocate to the church's O.W.E. Center at Security Square Mall. (Taylor DeVille / Baltimore Sun)

Baltimore County’s busiest health care center is also its smallest, operating in the basement of the Baltimore County Public Library’s Woodlawn branch, but local officials hope to open a new Woodlawn Health Center next summer at the O.W.E. Center in Security Square Mall.

Through a partnership with Set the Captives Free Outreach Center, a nondenominational church with around 2,000 members that also runs the community O.W.E. Center, the county is contributing $1.2 million for the design and construction of a new 8,800-square-foot health center. That’s more than twice the current center’s size and triples exam room space to help meet demand for services.

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Karen Bethea, senior pastor of Set the Captives Free Outreach Center, said the church’s purpose is to meet the needs of western Baltimore County residents. The church has run a food pantry for 13 years and last month became the county’s only westside freezing weather shelter, she noted.

A larger and more modern community health center also fills a need.

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The current Woodlawn health center, in the library branch at 1811 Woodlawn Drive, sees 24% ― more than 3,600 patients — of all patients served by the county’s total eight health centers annually, according to the county.

The new health center, to be located in Suite 100 at 6901 Security Square Blvd., will provide primary care services, health counseling, immunizations, screening, diagnosis and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases and more.

The county also plans to move the Woodlawn Women, Infants and Children Center, or WIC, which offers family planning and reproductive health care services, to the new site next year. The Woodlawn WIC is located currently at 2622 Lord Baltimore Drive.

Community health centers are a “critical safety net for so many,” said Dr. Gregory Wm. Branch, director of Baltimore County Department of Health and Human Services, during a Tuesday press conference outside the O.W.E. Center.

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The health centers serve patients on a sliding scale regardless of income level or health insurance.

The new health center near the intersection of Interstate 70 and the Baltimore Beltway also will offer expanded patient parking and improve patient access to public transportation with its proximity to transit stops, according to a news release.

Set the Captives Free paid $4.75 million in 2018 to buy 160,000 square feet in Security Square Mall, formerly the home of Seoul Plaza and JCPenney, to develop into the O.W.E. Center to hold worship and community services (O.W.E. stands for Outreach, Worship and Education, three areas on which the community center is focused.)

Bethea said the church plans to bring “even more community services to the O.W.E. Center, including a youth center, a 24-hour day care, a workforce development center and more.”

The new Woodlawn Health Center at the O.W.E. Center, a community outreach center at Security Square Mall operated by Set the Captives Free church, will have 8,800 square feet of space, more than doubling the size of the current Woodlawn Health Center in the basement of the county's Woodlawn library branch. The center is expected to be open summer 2021.
The new Woodlawn Health Center at the O.W.E. Center, a community outreach center at Security Square Mall operated by Set the Captives Free church, will have 8,800 square feet of space, more than doubling the size of the current Woodlawn Health Center in the basement of the county's Woodlawn library branch. The center is expected to be open summer 2021. (Courtesy of Baltimore County / Baltimore Sun)

“While we continue our fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re committed to expanding our efforts to combat the chronic health issues and underlying health conditions so many of our neighbors face,” County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. said during the press conference.

“By partnering with a pillar of our community, Baltimore County will provide a convenient one-stop shop that removes critical barriers to care,” he said.

With its location in a federally designated Opportunity Zone — underinvested areas wherein for-profit developers can get tax breaks to build — officials have long discussed revitalizing Security Square Mall.

The church’s O.W.E. Center is one part of that revitalization effort, although the nonprofit cannot use government tax credits afforded through the Opportunity Zone program.

But mall ownership is split among multiple parties, and conversations about how to move forward with those efforts have come in fits and starts, said County Councilman Tom Quirk, an Oella Democrat who represents Security Square and Woodlawn.

Quirk said he wants to restart conversations about a redevelopment with the county’s new Department of Economic Development director, Leonard J. Howie III, former secretary of the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.

Quirk said there was some development in the works, but nothing that he was ready to discuss publicly.

The health center is “one more step toward revitalization,” Quirk said during a press conference.

Its construction is a “tremendous step forward in terms of providing consolidated services to the citizens of this community,” said County Councilman Julian Jones, whose district borders Woodlawn.

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