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Uninvited, ConvergenceRI crashed a news conference to report on the construction of a new $15 million health facility by Providence Community Health Centers in Olneyville

Photo by Richard Asinof

A new community health facility grows in Olneyville. From left: Sen, Jack Reed, PCHC Board Chair Elena Nicolella, PCHC President and CEO Merrill Thomas, Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, and Providence City Council President Sabina Matos, at the ceremonial groundbreaking on Friday, Jan. 8,

By Richard Asinof
Posted 1/11/21
The construction of a new $15 million facility in Olneyville to meet the unmet health needs of residents by the Providence Community Health Centers marks a rebirth of hope in a neighborhood too often neglected – and which is currently the hottest spot for COVID-19 in the state.
How can the ongoing initiatives in Olneyville become part of a broader collaborative that builds upon the established networks of different organizations and agencies? Would the legislative leaders at the R.I. General Assembly – and the new incoming Governor – be willing to briefed by Providence Community Health Centers, ONE Neighborhood Builders, and Clinica Esperanza about the unmet health needs in the community? How has the new, free WIFI wire mesh system built out by ONE Neighborhood Builders, providing Internet connectivity to more than two-thirds of the residents in Olneyville, changed the landscape for economic development? Will the new health care clinics in Providence schools, staffed by the Providence Community Health Centers, be allowed to dispense birth control to students under Title X?
We should never take for granted the leadership of our Congressional delegation – Sen. Whitehouse, Sen. Reed, Rep. Cicilline and Rep. Langevin – and their commitment to preserving democracy and promoting health care, cybersecurity, affordable housing, and judicial integrity.
The most dramatic moment at the news conference was when the speakers – including Council President Matos and Mayor Elorza – spoke to the valor of Sen. Reed, who made time two days after an insurrection by domestic terrorists to topple the U.S. government to be in Providence to support the new “medical home” being built by Providence Community Health Centers.
On a personal note, Sen. Reed was the person who first came to my rescue , when I fell after one of my legs gave out while covering the news conference for the opening of the new pedestrian bridge in Providence two years, hoisting me back on my feet.

PROVIDENCE – I attended my first “live” news conference in six months, held outside, on a cold but sunny Friday morning, Jan. 8. As I stumbled about in the half-frozen earth covered with tire ruts from heavy construction equipment, supported by my trekking poles to keep from falling, I felt as if I had wandered into a surreal movie set.

I was wearing two masks and maintaining strict social distancing, as I ventured into one of the most highly contagious hot spots for COVID-19 in Rhode Island. My first thought: How many of those in attendance had received their first vaccination shot in the arm?

The scene was a ceremonial groundbreaking for a new $15 million “medical home” facility being built by the Providence Community Health Centers, on a dead-end street adjacent to a highway now under noisy reconstruction, in a struggling neighborhood in Olneyville, one that still bore many of the festering scars of disinvestment that had followed the Great Recession of 2008 – abandoned properties, closed storefronts and triple-decker housing in need of repair.

A rebirth of hope
The news conference was being staged to celebrate the new care facility being built by the Providence Community Health Centers at the former site of the Boys & Girls Club in Olneyville – a rebirth of hope in the heart of what now is the most contagious zone for the COVID-19 in Rhode Island, according to Merrill Thomas, president and CEO of the health center.

Much of the initial construction work on the structure had already commenced a month ago, so the groundbreaking was a ceremonial re-enactment, featuring U.S. Senator Jack Reed, Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, and Providence City Council President Sabina Matos. In the small world that is Rhode Island, Matos had once lived just around the corner from the new facility, Elorza a few blocks away, and Reed recalled how his father often walked to the former Boys & Girls Club to play ball.

Occurring two days after a mob attempted a violent insurrection at the U. S. Capitol, urged on by President Trump, on the same day that Gov. Gina Raimondo was to be introduced as the nominee as Commerce Secretary in the new Biden administration, and on the same morning that the Providence Police were holding a news conference to announce administrative charges against six officers involved in a moped crash that left 24-year-old Jhamal Gonsalves seriously injured, following the decision by the R.I. Attorney General not to pursue criminal charges, it was the kind of story easily swallowed up by the demands of the breaking news enterprise.

Beyond the usual media scrum of reporters, there was also a professional media crew hired to record the event for posterity, all to ensure that the moment could be edited, spliced, preserved and then posted on the social media platforms nearest you.

I was not “invited” to attend the event. Somehow, the communications director had “forgotten” to send me the news release about the event, despite my extensive coverage during the past year of the work being done by Providence Community Health Centers. [See links below to the ConvergenceRI stories, “Connecting primary care to emergency care in a pandemic,” and “Fighting COVID – and equal opportunity SOB.”]

Before the event began on Friday morning, when I asked the communications director in person, face to face, to please add me to his media list, he shrugged, saying he would get to it at some point – not exactly the attitude one would expect from an employee from a community health center that was busily promoting its efforts to remove barriers to accessing health care and addressing racial and health inequities.

Indeed, the communications director still has not yet responded to a series of questions I had sent to him two weeks ago, on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020, regarding PCHC involvement with SMART Clinics in two Providence schools. In the email, in addition to the questions, I had written: “Please make sure I am on your press list and receive future news releases.”

[For the record, that kind of hubris and arrogance, in ConvergenceRI’s opinion, seems to mirror so much of what is wrong today with the health care delivery system – where the patient is seen as a widget in a corporate process and not a person, where care priorities are decided by algorithms. As a reporter now handicapped by limited mobility, I admit that being dismissed as “unimportant” by the communications director stung. It stood in stark contrast to the way that Sen. Reed, Mayor Elorza, City Council President Matos, and PCHC President and CEO Thomas all engaged with me at the event.]

Honoring the valor of Sen. Reed
In case it doesn’t make the final cut of the video, let me share what was the most dramatic moment at the news conference, when speakers turned to Sen. Jack Reed and thanked him for all that he does.

Providence City Council President Matos began her remarks by turning around and personally thanking Reed for his presence at the event. “First of all, I have to say to Sen. Reed, thank you so much, it makes me so happy to see today, you don’t know. Thank you for your strength in [preserving] our democracy.”

Mayor Elorza also took time to honor Reed’s presence. “We appreciate you being here,” he said, taking what he called a moment of personal privilege. “There is so much happening in the world right now, and you’ve been in the middle of it. By being back in our community and prioritizing this event, it does mean a lot.”

The hottest COVID spot in Rhode Island
“The people who call Olneyville home face some of the greatest barriers to health care in New England,” Thomas said, in his opening remarks. “Central Falls may have the most cases of COVID per capita, but Olneyville has had thousands of more case overall.” Thomas continued: “The infection rates in this neighborhood have been nearly 10 times higher than the state average.”

The new health care facility, when it is completed in 11 months, with the capacity to serve 14,000 additional new patients beyond the 60,000 currently being served by Providence Community Health Centers as well as creating 50-full-time “sustainable living wage jobs,” promises to serve “the families of Olneyville that have more poor health outcomes than any other neighborhood in the city,” Thomas said.

Even more alarming, Thomas continued, was the fact that when you looked at the same health data by race and ethnicity, the outcomes for “Black and Latinx communities” were even worse, often by 25-30 percent.

Thomas emphasized the dire need for health care in Olneyville: “As the pandemic burned through out communities, [those living in the ZIP code] 02909 took the hardest hits, over and over.” During the summer, Thomas continued, “We kept coming back to the fact that Olneyville and Silver Lake still needed more access to health care, and we decided to push ahead with this project, given all the financial uncertainty,” despite all of the unkown and the chaos in the world.

Thomas admitted that, working alone, a community health center could not fix all the problems, and he praised the working partnerships with ONE Neighborhood Builders, the Rhode Island Food Bank and Family Service, among others.

“This new medical home is tangible investment in the people of this community,” Thomas said. “In the last year, there has a been a lot of talk about addressing racial and health inequities. This project is an example of not just talking about the issues, but making an investment and a long-term commitment to leveling the playing field, reducing the barriers, and empowering the community.”

A new dynamic neighborhood
Mayor Elorza connected the past to the future when it came to Olneyville. “We are here in Olneyville. When I was growing up, Olneyville was the poorest ZIP code in the entire state. Look at what has happened: we are [here today] celebrating investment and positivity, right here in Olneyville.”

Elorza also spoke about the importance of health care to creating a path to future opportunities and success: “Having health, having access to such things as joy, such as opportunity, to grow and become the best person you can,” that was the underlying “outcome” of a community health center in the neighborhood, in order to “continued to lift each other up.”

The Providence mayor also talked about the long-term impacts of health disparities along racial lines, including the high rate of mortality of mothers for people of color. “We knew this before the pandemic, and we knew this before last year, but we have reached a moment when we must put it at the top of our agenda.”

Elorza also praised the work of City Council President Matos. “As part of your continuing vision for Olneyville, I say thank you and congratulations. It’s 2021, and it is really nice to be on the other side of 2020, to have good news, celebrating more good work in our community. Because of the pandemic, because of so much that happened in the last year, the world is never going to be the same.”

A beautiful day in the neighborhood
The construction of the new community health center in Olneyville, coupled with the ongoing work by ONE Neighborhood Builders with its development of affordable housing and its Central Providence Health Equity Zone, bolstered by a recent $8 million award, as well as the ongoing work of Clinica Esperanza under the direction of Dr. Annie De Groot to serve the unmet health needs of residents, represents a new hope for neighborhoods often known more for neglect rather than investment.

It speaks to a broad new political coalition of engaged communities, willing to work across the racial and ethnic divide, to invest in the future health of Rhode Island for all of its residents. It remains, unfortunately, a story that is rarely covered by political reporters in Rhode Island – until the status quo gets upended in the R.I. General Assembly.

Quite simply, this is what reporting looks like – done by an experienced reporter despite limited mobility,  and a commitment to telling the stories that need to be told.

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