The recent Boston Globe series entitled 68 Blocks gave readers an opportunity to see into the window of the Bowdoin-Geneva and to feel the pain, suffering, hope, and joy that is felt in the neighborhood each day. To those of us who work there, the series was a painful re-living of each event that occurred, each issue that was raised, and each tragedy that scarred not only the friends and families of victims but also those of the perpetrators. But amid all the complexity of poverty, violence, gangs, and loss there are service organizations deeply committed to making a difference, one step at a time.
For most of the 32 years I have worked as executive director of the Bowdoin Street Health Center, the neighborhood wasn’t called anything. It was just a community between Fields Corner and Uphams Corner, occasionally referred to as St. Peter’s Parish, but otherwise unnamed and forgotten. Then, people starting getting shot.
Jeanne, a woman who worked for years at O’May’s Liquor Store died in mid-day, having been shot with a sawed-off shot gun for a jar of pennies. At the time, we were holding our monthly staff meeting a block away. The violence that had been simmering around us was now happening in broad daylight. We were all at risk of being shot, senselessly, because we lived or worked in a neighborhood that was seeing increasing violence. Soon after this mid-day fatality, we put automatic locks on our front doors, hired a full-time security guard, and placed alarms in key locations throughout the health center to try to help keep our patients and staff safe. We changed our hours so we were open more nights until 7 p.m. — but none until 9 p.m. We just didn’t think our patients would feel safe enough to come out that late, and our staff was less willing to work into the later hours. Tensions were very high, and each of us questioned our commitment to our work. Could we stay in this community or should we listen to family pressure and leave? Were we safe? Were our patients safe?
And was there anything we could do to make things better?
No one left. But, we knew we had to do more than just take care of the health of our patients. We had to take care of the health of the community. The Bowdoin Street Health Center was in a position to help. Most of our 11,000 patients come from Bowdoin-Geneva, many for the entire 40 years we’ve been open. Physicians like Dr. Anthony Bonacci, our pediatrician for 40 years, have quietly cared for generations of children, many of them touched deeply by the scars of violence. Dr. Joseph Ingelfinger and Dr. Jean Alves, internists for years in the community, cared for elderly patients with chronic illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes, made more complicated by the lack of safe places to exercise and fewer choices for healthy food options. Dr. Barbara Mendes, our family physician, is the support to hundreds of black women who are supporting their own families across generations.
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