By Marianne Aiello of the North End Community Health Center
Lining the stairway of the North End Community Health Center are the remnants of stained glass windows that belonged to the Baptist church that once resided at 332 Hanover St. In addition to their beautiful artistry, the decorative windows also call to mind a time when the North End did not have comprehensive health care.
Forty years ago in April, the North End Community Health Center opened its doors largely thanks to a dedicated group of community members who previously had little health care experience. The group was formed when the Massachusetts Department of Health and Hospitals called a public meeting and asked if there was a health care need in the community.
Group members agreed that there was such a need, especially because the few physicians already in the community didn’t have any hospital affiliations.
“At the time two of my children had asthma and I felt there was a need for a pediatrician that had privileges at Massachusetts General Hospital, to assure continuity of care” says Elaine Wilson, a North End Community Health Center founding member and board member. “The MGH was the hospital of choice for our community.”
After working with the Department of Health and Hospitals to outline the goals and visions for the health center, the group surveyed the community to determine what services were most needed and wanted.
“We decided to set up the community health center where primary care physicians, as well as other specialty services, could be provided within our North End neighborhood,” Wilson says. “Our primary goal was to provide the service at a reasonable cost in a comfortable environment for all our neighbors, including those who primarily spoke Italian.”
The group received hundreds of completed surveys, which helped Wilson and her fellow founders decide how to best serve the community. They found that there was a major need for a podiatrist.
“In the Italian culture your feet need to feel good so you can walk around get out and go places, so that was a big concern,” she says. “We documented all of this feedback and received a very high percent of return and as a result we were able to provide some of the main services the community was looking for. Then it grew from there.”
Wilson and the other founding members also approached MGH about forming a partnership, which has grown and strengthened over time.
About one year after taking the survey, the North End Community Centered opened at 332 Hanover St., sharing the building with the Baptist Association. It was the first Italian-American health center to open in the United States.
Over 40 years the organization has expanded to include pediatric care, dental services, vision services, a child center, an adult day center, and a youth outreach program. But despite all its expansion, the health center’s mission and values have remained constant.
“We have been blessed over these 40 years to attract the most wonderful dedicated very high quality people to work at the center,” Wilson says. “It is amazing to me because most certainly the salaries didn’t attract them—they just were dedicated people who wanted to work in this environment. And it continues to attract new people who have the same kind of forward thinking and dedication and that speaks volumes to the center and what it stands for.”
When asked what she is most proud of, Wilson simply states, “The fact that the health center exists.”
“The affiliation we have had with Partners/MGH has been so incredibly important and meaningful to us,” she continues. “Over the past 40 years that affiliation ahs served thousands of patients and I’m sure has saved many lives, including two of my family members. The North End Community Health Center continues to be the heart of the neighborhood.”
A sincere thank you to the North End Community Health Center for sharing this article. For more information on the Health Center see our new Health & Fitness resource page under the “Living Here” menu.