Dr. Beth Mulberry ’86 provides an upstream approach to healthcare for uninsured and
underinsured residents of Greensboro, North Carolina, through Mustard Seed Community
By Matt Wing
Cynthia Nelson had lost her job. She lost her health insurance. She was losing hope.
The then-62-year-old resident of Greensboro, North Carolina, had long been treated
for Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure, but was now uncertain how she’d be able
to afford her medications. She knew the danger of letting her conditions go untreated.
Nelson sought coverage under Medicare. She was told she didn’t qualify. She looked
into the Affordable Care Act. No help there.
Nelson was falling through the cracks.
“I was surprised because I didn’t know what people like me were supposed to do,” Nelson
said. “I needed insurance. I couldn’t afford it, but I had to have it. And it’s not
just me — there are a lot of people who fall into the same category.”
Nelson eventually spoke to someone who referred her to Dr. Beth Mulberry ’86. They
informed her Mulberry ran a clinic for uninsured and underinsured residents of the
community, right in Nelson’s east Greensboro neighborhood.
Nelson scheduled an appointment and met “Dr. Beth” at Mustard Seed Community Health,
a nonprofit healthcare facility in Greensboro’s Cottage Grove neighborhood.
“When I first met Beth, we had a conversation about my health,” Nelson recalled. “She
actually listened to me, and she was the first doctor that I had been to in years
that saw me as a person and not a number.
“She treated me like a person and gave me the medical care I needed.”
Being part of a community has always been important to Beth Mulberry.
She grew up in the tight-knit community of Metamora, Illinois, where everybody knows
“I think of it as being raised by a village. I had awesome parents but I was also
raised by that village,” Mulberry said. “Everybody knew who I was, and I knew that
I needed to behave, or the news about me misbehaving was going to precede me getting
Mulberry later found community at Illinois Wesleyan. She felt a sense of belonging
as a member of IWU’s basketball and softball teams. She felt it as a member of Kappa
Delta and the marching band. She relished the opportunity to explore a variety of
interests, from photography and theatre classes to religious life involvement, and
was inspired by her professors.
“I just never understood why anybody would ever want anything else besides a liberal
arts education because you are able to do all that stuff,” Mulberry said.
Mulberry’s IWU community also served as a support system when her father died unexpectedly
at the end of her sophomore year. Illinois Wesleyan’s Parent Fund, which offers donor-funded
grants to students who lose a parent while enrolled at IWU, provided much-needed financial
assistance. She received compassion from her academic adviser, biology professor Bruce
Criley, who helped her through the difficult time.
“After my dad died, I had to come back to school to sit down with Dr. Criley and get
my classes set up because I had missed the sign up,” Mulberry recalled. “He picked
up that phone and called people and got me all set up. He came off as gruff to some
people, but he was just such a good guy.”
After graduating from IWU, Mulberry moved on to the University of Illinois College
of Medicine at Peoria, just a few miles from her hometown. But after completing the
combined internal medicine/pediatric program there, and serving her residency at nearby
OSF St. Francis Medical Center, she was unsure of her next move. She thought about
traveling the world or learning another language. She considered the Peace Corps,
but the organization surprisingly showed little interest in the new doctor. “They
didn’t know what to do with me,” Mulberry said, laughing.
Eventually, she came across an intriguing opportunity found “at the bottom of the
Mulberry made the long journey to western Alaska, more than 3,200 miles from home,
to join Indian Health Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human
Services. There, she and others provided care for over 50 Yup’ik Eskimo communities.
Each physician was assigned to a number of communities — Mulberry was responsible
for three of them — and every six months, physicians would spend a week living in
those communities, most of which lacked running water and indoor plumbing.
Mulberry felt that important sense of community during her time in Alaska, while also
acquiring a firsthand awareness of the difficulties some face with access to healthcare.
“I had already known I wanted to do something like I am doing now, though I had no
clue what exactly, or how,” Mulberry said. “But going up to Alaska and working with
some really spectacular individuals really solidified the idea that I would eventually
get to where I am now, doing something like this.”
Mulberry worked in private practice in Oregon and North Carolina. It paid the bills,
but it didn’t bring her the same joy she felt serving the Yup’ik communities in Alaska.
She felt the pull to return to that kind of work.
In 2007, she joined HealthServe, a Greensboro clinic serving individuals and families
living below the poverty line. The work gave her purpose and allowed her to serve
a community in need.
But Mulberry wanted to provide more holistic care. She wanted to address the social
determinants of health. The care she provided often felt like temporary fixes, with
patients usually returning a few months later with the same ailments.
She wanted to be able to provide health solutions that would more dramatically improve
Mulberry left HealthServe in 2012 and focused on her family while pondering her next
move. She eventually found herself at Church Health, a faith-based nonprofit in Memphis,
attending a series of workshops for individuals interested in starting nonprofit healthcare
clinics in their communities. The prospect of opening and operating a clinic — and
providing unprecedented access — suddenly seemed possible.
Mulberry left Memphis confident she could move forward, but spoke with a few trusted
advisers before taking the leap.
“Even before Mustard Seed, Beth and I had numerous conversations about her work with
those without adequate healthcare or insurance,” said Julie Peeples, senior pastor
at Congregational Church in Greensboro. “When we began talking about starting a new
clinic, she shared her dream of providing a place where everyone is treated with dignity,
where health and wholeness take priority over the bottom line and the needs of the
medical and insurance systems.”
Mulberry followed the steps she had learned in Memphis. Paperwork was submitted for
nonprofit status. A board was formed. A location in east Greensboro, where most of
the clinic’s patients would be coming from, was secured.
Mustard Seed Community Health was born.
“I have witnessed Beth’s deep commitment to this vision when she speaks with potential
partners, donors and people in the community,” Peeples said. “Her vision has been
a vital part of transforming an entire community.”
The biblical parable of the mustard seed suggests that big things can come from small
What started as a weekly volunteer clinic in 2013, is now open five days a week. Mustard
Seed serves a diverse population Mulberry says is primarily African American and Hispanic/Latinx,
with smaller populations of whites, and Asian Americans and Asian immigrants, including
a number of refugees from Bhutan, Myanmar and Vietnam.
Last year, the clinic served nearly 700 patients who made about 2,200 visits (Mulberry
also frequently conducts home visits for those physically or financially unable to
visit the clinic). Most patients pay about $20 for a visit, and Mulberry and her team
help them obtain prescriptions as affordably as possible.
Beyond providing accessible and affordable care, Mustard Seed takes a holistic approach
to healthcare. Rather than simply treating symptoms, Mulberry and her team seek to
identify and address the causes of health issues. This “upstream” approach has clinicians
looking at the social, economic and environmental origins of health problems instead
of only managing symptoms.
Early on, Mulberry noticed an alarmingly high rate of asthma in her Greensboro patients.
Taking the upstream approach and looking for root causes, Mustard Seed partnered with
a local housing coalition to study the conditions in local residences. They found
mold and mildew in many housing complexes, and they now help steer local residents
to housing that meets acceptable standards.
Other health issues are addressed by applying the upstream method. Patients facing
mental health issues have access to counseling. Families without access to fresh food
have a community garden at their disposal. Patients feeling isolated are welcome to
group events as diverse as the patients themselves.
Mustard Seed’s blueprint for healthcare has been praised by both local and national
media, with stories in the local News & Record and a December 2018 segment on PBS NewsHour.
Mulberry, though, is the lone physician treating patients at the clinic, which only
employs a handful of others, including a nurse and an office manager. Much assistance
comes from volunteers, including a number of translators.
The modest overhead requires Mulberry to cultivate partnerships to expand services.
She’s worked closely with the City of Greensboro, local colleges and universities,
local churches and youth groups. Mulberry partners with local schools to begin teaching
healthy lifestyles early on.
The community partnerships Mulberry has fostered — combined with devoted fundraising
efforts — has allowed Mustard Seed to live up to its name. What started as a once-a-week
volunteer clinic has become a community-centered integrated care clinic offering a
wide range of programs and services.
“Beth has built a community coalition of neighbors, social workers, nurses, educators,
gardeners and physicians, who are working together to vastly improve the quality of
life for many,” said Peeples. “The seeds she has been planting will bear good fruit
for generations to come in a community that was in dire need of access to healthcare
and decent housing, in dire need of hope.”
For the first time in her life, Cynthia Nelson has a doctor she trusts.
The admittedly stubborn 64-year-old resisted Mulberry’s advice initially. Now she
Mulberry has helped Nelson manage the medication to treat her diabetes and high blood
pressure. She’s encouraged her to eat healthier. She even persuaded Nelson to see
a mental health specialist to treat depression.
Nelson refused at first, but eventually relented after Mulberry’s persistence.
She now admits her doctor was right.
“We all need someone to talk to,” Nelson said. “Your mental health affects your physical
health, and I’m concerned about both. You can’t treat one without the other, because
they work together.”
Once distrustful of all doctors, Nelson has changed her tune. She says the world needs
more physicians like “Dr. Beth.” She says Mulberry is “like a best friend.”
“I will go wherever Beth goes,” Nelson says matter-of-factly. “It’s to the point that
if she moved away, I would find a way to move where she is so I could continue to
be seen by her.”
But Mulberry’s not planning a move. She’s found in Greensboro the same feeling of
community she found in Metamora, at Illinois Wesleyan, and in the Yup’ik villages
And in Mustard Seed, she’s created a community for a population in need.
“To me, it’s very energizing, the community aspect of this. Seeing a community thrive,
it just lights my fire, basically,” Mulberry said. “That’s what we’re hoping to continue
to build here in this community.”