Living the Dream
What happens when a leader uses her knowledge, her power, and her passion for the good of her community? Everybody wins.
For Phillomin "Philly" Laptiste, being the executive director of Bowdoin Street Health Center (BSHC) is more than a career—it's part of her life story. Throughout her more than 10-year tenure at the center, which is licensed by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) and has provided high-quality, comprehensive health care services to the residents of Dorchester's Bowdoin-Geneva neighborhood for more than four decades, she has witnessed its extraordinary impact every day. But before Laptiste was in charge at BSHC, she entered its doors for the first time in a different capacity: as a terrified new mother.
Nearly 11 years ago, when Laptiste's daughter Deanna was a year old, her grandmother brought her to BSHC for emergency care for a mysterious condition. When Laptiste arrived at the center, she found Deanna lethargic and surrounded by clinicians and family members. Despite not being a BSHC patient, Deanna received prompt attention, notably from physician Anthony Bonacci, M.D., who continuously followed up with Laptiste for the next 24 hours and later determined Deanna had ingested one of her grandfather's blood pressure pills. Laptiste credits the center's staff for saving her daughter's life.
Several months later, in a twist of fate, BSHC was hiring. Laptiste's impressive experience in nonprofit operations coupled with the fact that she was born and raised on Bowdoin Street made her stand out. This was her chance to fulfill her lifelong motto: "Don't just dream of the person you want to be—become that person." She joined BSHC in 2008 as manager of community health, eventually ascending to operations manager and associate director, before being promoted into her current role. Today Laptiste is a beacon of her community and one of the most recognizable faces at BIDMC, which presented her with its 2018 "Achiever" award in recognition of her countless contributions.
BSHC offers comprehensive primary and specialty care, as well as focused expertise in chronic disease management, to more than 11,000 patients annually, with patient volume rising consistently. As Bowdoin- Geneva's largest employer, the center leads important community events and initiatives. "We have a dual mission," explains Laptiste. "We deliver preventive and holistic care to our patients as well as programming to improve the well-being of our neighborhood." The BSHC patient population reflects the community's demographics: 43 percent African American and Caribbean Islanders, 40 percent Cape Verdean, 12 percent Latino, and 5 percent Caucasian and Vietnamese. Half of the residents live below the federal poverty level, many working in jobs that pay less than a living wage. "Bowdoin-Geneva is incredibly rich in culture and diversity," says Laptiste. "You can walk a block and hear four different languages. Everyone is welcome and receives culturally competent care at Bowdoin Street."
Each of the center's programmatic efforts is carefully tailored to neighborhood residents. "When you think about the population we serve, it's important to consider the social determinants of health," says Laptiste. "Things like education, financial stability, socioeconomic status, violence, trauma, and access to food and housing—or the lack thereof—impact health in powerful ways." Laptiste has experienced violence herself: she lost her cousin Nicholas Trotman, whom she thought of as a brother, in 2011 when he was shot and killed on Olney Street, just blocks from her home. "I feared for my daughter's safety and wanted to leave," says Laptiste, who collapsed when she heard the news. "But at the same time I loved my job and felt an overwhelming duty to continue to help this community."
BSHC established the Community Health Worker (CHW) Program to care for its most high-risk patients, who are often not engaged in their clinical care due to complex social circumstances, including violence, homelessness, and food insecurity. CHWs provide relief through health system navigation and resource support. "I truly believe that health care is the universal access point for all things," explains Laptiste. "For example, we have a diabetic patient who wasn't taking her medication. Her community health worker built a relationship with her and eventually discovered that the patient was having trouble with her medical insurance and was on the brink of being evicted. The community health worker helped her address these issues, and she is now able to adhere to her treatment plan." Philanthropy played a vital role in the CHW program's creation; a generous gift from the Casty family enabled BSHC to enact a pilot that paved the way for the hiring of three new CHWs.
Another vulnerable group of patients is expectant mothers. "Women of color face a high risk of maternal and infant mortality," explains Laptiste. Through the center's prenatal program, Centering Pregnancy, Laptiste's team conducts group classes that teach valuable skills around self-care during pregnancy, preparing for the baby, and planning for motherhood. Evidence shows that the centering model leads to lower rates of preterm births and higher rates of successful breastfeeding. A meaningful gift from Samantha and James David will allow this program to expand over the next several years.
BSHC is committed to building an environment that supports healthy living through food access. "When I started working at Bowdoin Street, this area was considered a food desert," says Laptiste. That has changed significantly, thanks in large part to her work to establish Bowdoin-Geneva's first farmer's market. "Doctors may tell their patients to eat vegetables, but they cannot make that lifestyle change unless it's accessible," says Laptiste. "Access means having a store nearby that stocks fresh produce, the resources to buy it, and the knowledge how to prepare it." Today, the health center offers cooking classes and nutrition counseling, as well as a healthy food prescription program, which provides Bowdoin Bucks—coupons that can be used at local stores, the farm stand, and Fresh Truck, a "mobile, market" that brings fresh food to Bowdoin-Geneva once a week. This work is possible thanks to generous, longstanding support from the Krupp Family Foundation, whose mission is to invest in equal access to fresh food in under-resourced communities and whose commitment to BSHC has been transformational over many years.
"The incredible resilience of Bowdoin-Geneva residents is undeniable," says Laptiste, who ran the Boston Marathon for two consecutive years in 2017 and 2018 for Team BIDMC, raising vital funds for BSHC. "We have had our fair share of struggle, but there are so many wonderful people who stayed here through it all and are committed to creating positive change." Laptiste is one of those people. Her devotion to her community and to BSHC runs deep, and she's determined to stay. Her hard work and passion have truly paid off— and she is just getting started. With the help of philanthropy from a number of generous, visionary supporters, she has mobilized impactful new initiatives at BSHC that are making a tangible difference in the lives of many. She has become the person she always dreamed of being.
The incredible resilience of Bowdoin-Geneva residents is undeniable.
Phillomin "Philly" Laptiste
Executive Director, Bowdoin Street Health Center