Can community investment improve health? Boston Children’s is spending $53 million to find out

The Boston Children’s construction project, the largest of its kind in state history, has already expanded the types of organizations the hospital works with. “We had never received funding from the hospital before,” says Sandra McCroom, president and CEO of Roxbury Children’s Services, who says she is looking forward to partnering with the hospital. Children’s Services has a three-year, $300,000 grant that began in May. In addition to running youth development programs, Children’s Services works to house homeless families, find foster families for abused children, and improve access to affordable child care and mental health counselling. The organization is using its grant to strengthen a program that helps children who have faced trauma access mental health services.

Community health has always been part of Boston Children’s mission, says Dr. Shari Nethersole, executive director of the hospital’s community health efforts. During its early decades, Children’s Hospital Boston, as it was called when it was founded in 1869, provided free care for orphans and children of indigent families. This was easier to do when the average hospital visit cost $1.50, as it did in the 1930s. At the hospital’s centennial in 1969, however, regular deficits driven in part by the innovation, along with the advent of Medicaid, changed how the hospital would provide care to low-income patients.

> Related: For more on Boston Children’s 150th Anniversary, click here.

This care takes many forms. Boston Children’s operates eight satellite clinics in underserved neighborhoods, such as the Martha Eliot Health Center in Jamaica Plain. The hospital also spends about $4 million annually on community health, according to voluntary guidelines for hospitals set by the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office. This funding goes to preventive and follow-up care programs for children from low-income families, such as providing public schools with psychologists and social workers, and training teachers to deal with student trauma, developmental disorders, and mental illness. learning and mental illness.

Dr. Shari Nethersole directs the Boston Children’s Community Health Program.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Boston Children’s also sponsors exercise and healthy eating programs, and sends caregivers to the homes of children with severe asthma to help them learn how to manage the condition. It provides in-home environmental assessments, hypoallergenic bedding, special vacuum cleaners, and bins to store items away from dust.

What’s exciting for Nethersole is that the Community Health Collaboration “allows us to step up our game and fund things we haven’t funded before.” The hospital now supports organizations such as the Roxbury-based Sociedad Latina, the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center, and HopeWell, Massachusetts’ largest nonprofit foster care provider.

In 2018, HopeWell received a three-year, $75,000 grant to boost its My First Place housing program. When teens get too old to be placed in foster care, they have no family to help them navigate adulthood, says Shaheer Mustafa, CEO and President of HopeWell. Typically, 40% of young people placed in foster care end up on the streets within the first year after leaving the foster care system. “We are trying to disrupt all of this by providing stable housing, first of all,” Mustafa says. “And the second element engages these young people in a way that supports them.” He will use his new funding from Boston Children’s to provide up to two years of rent-free apartments to allow the young people he supports to focus on education and employment.

Some of the dozens of organizations Boston Children’s has supported to date show the hospital’s willingness to go beyond traditional definitions of health or social services. For example, he gave $225,000 over three years to Project RIGHT, which supports people who have experienced violence and trauma. Events and activities include working with MassArt to host paint nights for families in the Grove Hall neighborhood, and with the Roxbury YMCA to offer teen nights on Fridays.

Such a mix doesn’t fit the parameters of many funders, says Michael Kozu, the 28-year-old nonprofit’s co-director. “BCH gives us money for what we actually do. It really allows us to solve some of the problems here. Her new grant allows her to expand her trauma support for adolescents and young adults, including hiring a bilingual outreach coordinator to work with the Cape Verdean community.

The 2019 Spring Championship team and the most valuable male and female players in Mike & Al’s Basketball League, a program operated by Project RIGHT.LAW project inc.

Project RIGHT had previously received at least one major grant from Boston Children’s. This new grant will allow her to provide more one-on-one interactions with members of the Grove Hall community, among other services.

Boston Children’s is monitoring the grants to see how they are doing and will measure results over time. “It’s a bit of an experiment,” Nethersole said. “Some organizations will probably succeed and some will not. It’s a bit like clinical research: you try a drug on patients to see if it works.

Meanwhile, staff members of the hospital’s Community Health Office carry on established traditions of meeting with residents to get feedback and ideas about neighborhood health needs.

One evening in August, for example, Nethersole, accompanied by Tara Agrawal, the hospital’s director of community investments, and Ayesha Cammaerts, its program and population health manager, visited the Hibernian Roxbury Hall for a meeting the hospital holds every three years, to help the Nethersole team better plan how to meet the health needs of the community.

Cammaerts sees meetings like these as an opportunity to help him be more effective. “In my job, it’s easy to get lost in the data. But I didn’t come into public health to sit in an office behind a desk. Here, we can’t stand in front of the room lecturing them,” she said, pointing to the people seated around her. “We need to think about how to engage with the community.”

Nethersole hopes to find ways to maintain the momentum that is building by 2027. “The hospital,” she says, “isn’t just going to pick up and go.”

Jill E. Washington