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Wellness expo brings community support to Roxbury residents

Avery Bleichfeld
Wellness expo brings community support to Roxbury residents
The. Black Family Wellness Expo, hosted by the Middlesex chapter of Links Incorporated, was held at the 12th Baptist Church on Saturday. PHOTO: Chellypic Photography

Earlene Avalon was nervous that Saturday’s lashing rainstorm would keep people away from the Black Family Wellness Expo, but the forecast wasn’t enough to slow the hundreds of people who came to the historic 12th Baptist Church to receive the blessings of health guidance.

The event, hosted by the Middlesex chapter of Links Incorporated, which Avalon leads, offered mobile health checkups, dancing, guest lectures and free food, aiming to tackle wellness across the whole spectrum of needs, including medical, mental and spiritual health.

“People can help dance with their children downstairs in a lower level, go get their blood pressure checked on another level, get a vaccine outside and then grab a plate of food … and then leave with all types of resources in terms of what they can do after they leave in order to maintain their financial health, mental health and spiritual health,” said Avalon, who is also a professor in the health management and health sciences programs at Northeastern University College of Professional Studies.

Dr. Earlene Avalon, President of the Middlesex County Chapter of The Links (right) and Ruthzee Louijeune, Boston City Council President. PHOTO: Chellypic Photography

Organizers of the event said it was important to focus not just on clinical services — though mobile health vans from Forsyth Dental, Boston Medical Center and Mass General Brigham were in attendance — but also factors that a hospital may not treat that still impact health, like housing access or food access, referred to by public health experts as social determinants of health.

“I think we want to get people out of the mindset that wellness is just health related,” said Petrina Martin Cherry, vice president of community engagement and external affairs at Boston Medical Center and a member of the Middlesex chapter of Links Incorporated. “Wellness is all the social determinants: It’s access to information and access to jobs, to workforce, to economic mobility, to knowing what your legal rights are — all of that is wellness.”

Avalon said the effort was a success. The over 250 meals, catered by Jamaica Me Hungry, were gone by the end of the day, as were the over 100 bags of free, fresh produce from Nubian Markets.

Physical Fitness Class Led by Melisa Valdez. PHOTO: Chellypic Photography

Over the course of the day Avalon said she heard feedback — and saw other members from the Links chapter receiving the same — from many community members who showed up at the event, and all its offerings were much needed.

“That to me really warmed my heart and really reassured me that the work that we’re doing is pivotal in this particular community,” she said.

The event, part of a bigger effort from the national Links organization, comes as communities of color continue to grapple with health disparities. Data from the Boston Public Health Commission reliably finds neighborhoods like Roxbury face higher rates of heart disease, asthma and diabetes, as well as lower life expectancies.

Most recently, March 20, the city of Boston released its Mental Health of Boston report, which found Black and Latinx residents more frequently reported experiencing poor mental health symptoms and Black and Latinx youth had higher rates of attempted suicide than white youth.

For Martin Cherry, the event was just a start, a way to get families connected to all the community organizations — including medical providers like Mass General Brigham and Boston Medical Center and others like MassVOTE and the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts — that showed up for the event.

Dr. Stephanie Pinder-Amaker presents a discussion on “Young, Gifted, Black and Resilient.” PHOTO: Chellypic Photography

“These are all organizations who are committed to providing access to these things not just on this day, but in the work that all of the work these partners and organizations are doing every day,” Martin Cherry said. “It’s a great opportunity, yes, on this day to open our doors and provide these services and provide this information, but we also want to connect people with resources. It’s not just one day.”

Bodrick said work around Black family wellness is particularly important in a post-COVID-19 moment, following a pandemic that brought to light gaps that exist in the health of families and communities.

“COVID really showed us what it means to see fractures in wholeness, particularly as it relates to health and the ways in which it had a very detrimental impact on our community,” he said.

The event was also an important way to support community health broadly, he said, and a natural continuation of work for a church that has a prominent legacy as the “fugitive slave church” and a place where Martin Luther King Jr. preached.

“[It’s about] healing the individual, healing the family, healing the community and really thinking critically about the ways in which, if we are all well individually and collectively, we’ll be well as a community,” Bodrick said.

Hosting it at a church, particularly one with prominent community connections, was an obvious choice, said Martin Cherry, pointing to work that Boston Medical Center did with Twelfth Baptist to host vaccine clinics during the pandemic.

“The church is the doorway to the community, there’s always so much trust there,” she said. “With 12th Baptist specifically, for generations they have always served the community in that way.”

The event, which took months to prepare, was a “labor of love,” said Avalon. Preparation included weekly phone meetings and nighttime conference calls, but she said she’s looking forward to working on an even bigger one next year. The organization is aiming to make the event an annual offering.

Throughout the day, she said she and other members of the Links had attendees shaking their hands and giving them hugs to let them know what the event meant to them.

“That’s when you know you’re doing something right, when people leave with a smile on their face,” Avalon said.

Black Family Wellness Expo, Black Health and Wellness, health