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The Podium

In Bowdoin-Geneva, community groups build hope

Chalk on the sidewalk on Bowdoin St. at the corner of Bowdoin Park

Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff

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.

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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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Twenty-five years ago, we decided that providing clinical care wasn’t enough. We had to care for the health of the community. We decided to work in partnership with residents and business owners on the issues that matter most to them.

We sat around our conference room and laid out the health issues we were seeing at the time: teenage pregnancy, substance abuse, chronic disease, and need for mental health services. We went out and knocked on doors. We asked people living in the community, “What is the most pressing health issue for you? They surprised us. They talked a lot about trash, abandoned lots, and abandoned cars. These weren’t on our list of health issues, but our commitment was to work with folks on what mattered to them. So, we started organizing around TLC (trash, lots, and cars) and we had some good success. Abandoned cars disappeared, lots were transformed into gardens and tot lots, and trash was more properly disposed of.

About five years ago, a group of residents identified the need for healthier food options for themselves and their neighbors. They approached the health center to partner with them, and together we have been running a farmer’s market each summer. Our young, Healthy Champions, tend a vegetable garden each growing season, learning about healthy foods. They sell their vegetables at the farmers market, learning business and marketing skills.

Today, residents identify violence and safety as their major concern. And the Globe series highlighted our health worker Susan Young. Susan has helped organize streets; secure housing for homeless members of the community; and aide families in the aftermath of violence. While Susan is a vibrant asset to the neighborhood, she doesn’t work alone as an organizer, and neither does the health center.

There are 11 organizations in Bowdoin-Geneva who comprise the Bowdoin-Geneva Alliance. They include: Bowdoin Street Health Center, Catholic Charities Teen Center at St. Peter’s, Family Nurturing Center, College Bound Dorchester, St. Peter’s Church, First Parish Church, Main Streets, Dorchester Bay Economic Development Corporation, CVC UNIDO, Bird Street Community Center, and the Boys and Girls Club of Dorchester. We have been working together for decades, but over the last two years we have combined our efforts to form the alliance. The problems of Bowdoin-Geneva are too complex and pervasive to have us working in silos, and our organizations are only as strong as we are when working as partners.

The 68 Blocks series depicted a neighborhood with persistent violence, family struggles, and youth lost and found. It also depicted neighbors trying to bring beauty and peace to their homes, blocks, and community. The Bowdoin-Geneva Alliance is trying to do the same things. We are focused on family strengthening, providing opportunities for families to meet one another to build a stronger sense of community. Over 100 children and adults participated in holiday caroling from the Holland Community Center to the First Parish Church. Voices lifted in song, bringing the message of joy and connectedness to one another. Our alliance is also focused on economic development, helping businesses to create the ongoing foot traffic that keeps people shopping in their stores and the streets safe.

Bowdoin-Geneva’s 68 blocks are rich in diversity. The traumatic effect of repeated gunshots and murders runs very deep and requires creative support services to help healing. The disproportionate violence that has plagued this community can stop. That will happen as increasing number of residents take on leadership roles, both adults and youths. It will happen because service organizations work collaboratively and cooperatively. It will happen because city services reach greater numbers. It will happen as businesses thrive and community members find work. And it will happen as the greater Boston area understands life in Bowdoin-Geneva and reaches out to support those who need it the most.

As I start my 33rd year in Bowdoin-Geneva, I see a neighborhood full of promise. But, we cannot do it alone. We need everyone’s help.

Adela Margules is executive director of the Bowdoin Street Health Center; she can be reached at amargule@bidmc.harvard.edu
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