Next Score View the next score

    thomas farragher

    At The Boston Home, an unlikely classroom develops

    05Farragher - Beth Crowley, left, and Elisabeth Bellabe have leaned on and learned from each other at The Boston Home. (Thomas Farragher/Globe Staff)
    Thomas Farragher/Globe staff
    Beth Crowley (left) and Elisabeth Bellabe have learned from each other at The Boston Home.

    Sometimes, when the paths of two lives unexpectedly intersect, magic happens. This is one of those times.

    Beth Crowley grew up in Jamaica Plain, the oldest of six kids, and was educated in Catholic schools right up until she collected her history degree from Merrimack College in 1969.

    Then she went back to school again. This time at the big desk in front of the classroom.


    She taught fifth-graders at St. Kevin’s in Dorchester. She taught girls at the Julie Billiart School in the North End. And later, after raising three kids, she worked at public schools all over Quincy.

    Get Fast Forward in your inbox:
    Forget yesterday's news. Get what you need today in this early-morning email.
    Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

    Then life threw a curveball.

    She was involved in a minor car accident on Furnace Brook Parkway in 1989. No big deal. A fender-bender. Out of an abundance of caution, she went to see her doctor. He ordered an MRI.

    Before a follow-up appointment, the doctor called with this message: Bring your husband. I have bad news. “Not something I expected,’’ she said.

    The bad news was this: Beth Crowley had multiple sclerosis, a diagnosis that would eventually lead her to The Boston Home, a grand and extraordinary place on Dorchester Avenue for people with neurological diseases.


    The facility dates to 1881, and Crowley has found terrific care there from a dedicated staff of professionals committed to supporting mind, body, and spirit.

    And that’s where Beth Crowley met Elisabeth Bellabe.

    Bellabe grew up in Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, the youngest of four children in a home where her dad worked as a mechanic, her mother as a cook. When she came to the United States 11 years ago, she arrived without a high school diploma, bouncing around at odd jobs from Manhattan to Miami.

    About a year ago, she took a job as a nursing assistant. She would help people like Crowley with their meals, medication, grooming — guiding them from bed to wheelchair. The women would exchange pleasantries, but their relationship was chiefly caregiver-patient.

    Then, last year, that changed. Through a partnership with Jewish Vocational Services, The Boston Home tried something different. It embraced a new idea that turned Elisabeth Bellabe into a student and restored Beth Crowley’s treasured status as a sterling teacher.


    Bellabe provides care. Crowley, twice a week for two hours, provides knowledge. She has worked with Bellabe, polishing her writing skills, imparting the power of literature, guiding her and a handful of other Boston Home caregivers through the labyrinth we call English grammar.

    The objective? A high school equivalency diploma. Perhaps a degree in nursing.

    “She was a great help to us,’’ Bellabe told me this week, sitting in a bright common room at The Boston Home alongside Crowley. “This is something we have now that is more than, ‘Good morning. Do you need anything?’ This is a real relationship.’’

    Yes. It is. And as the two women talked — women who have leaned on and learned from each other — the power of their relationship, and the genuineness of it, were unmistakable.

    “I’ve never been with a group of people I admire more,’’ Beth Crowley said. “They are so committed to bettering themselves for the sake of their families. As you can imagine, this is an extremely difficult job that they do. We’re not easy to shift around.

    “They’re responsible for taking care of us physically. But, like Elisabeth says, you develop a relationship. You get to know them. What’s going on with their lives. These women don’t have to do it. They want to do it.’’

    Unlike in her former classroom life, there was never a need for Crowley to prod a student like Bellabe to complete any classroom assignment. Bellabe is a classroom sponge. Alert. Prepared. Questions cascading after questions.

    Along the way, as their relationship morphed from caregiver-patient to student-teacher, a deeper bond was formed. Friendship blossomed. Sometimes as she looks at Bellabe, Crowley can now see one of her daughters.

    “Elisabeth carries herself so beautifully that she looks even taller than she is,’’ Crowley said. “When you walk into a room and you see this lady, she is so striking. And always a wonderful smile and a hand in the air, which is of course one of the best things a teacher can see: somebody who’s engaged.’’

    Throughout her teaching career, it was not uncommon for Beth Crowley to welcome old students back to her classroom. They would come, across the years, and catch their old teacher up on life’s milestones: an advanced degree, a new job, a marriage, a first-born child.

    So it’s easy to imagine her someday soon, watching her old student at The Boston Home walking across an auditorium stage as Elisabeth Bellabe — resplendent in a cap and gown — reaps the fresh fruit of academic achievement.

    It won’t be difficult to spot her old teacher. She’ll be the one in the front row — smiling wider, applauding louder than anyone in the room.

    Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at