The Evolution of the Lowell CHC
Since its beginning in 1970 as a small clinic within the Shaughnessy Terrace public housing project, Lowell Community Health Center (Lowell CHC) has never stopped evolving. This year, at home in the Dr. Moses Greeley Parker Building — a modern and bright facility within a renovated mill on Jackson Street — Lowell CHC celebrates its 50th year of providing medical care to residents of Greater Lowell regardless of their ability to pay.
“We are the primary medical home for over half the population of Lowell,” says CEO Susan West Levine. “We have been for 50 years, and we plan to be for the next 50.” The relationship between the community and the center is deep and multifaceted; half of Lowell CHC’s employees live in Lowell, and more than half of the board of directors is made up of Lowell CHC patients. This makes for an institution attuned to the needs of the locality it serves.
Upon entering the center, a visitor’s eyes are first drawn to a honey-toned, wood-brick wall engraved with words of welcome in many languages. Chief Advancement Officer Clare Gunther says visitors sometimes have their pictures taken next to the messages in their first languages, often pleasantly surprised to see them there.
Lowell CHC staff members speak more than 28 languages, and off-site medical interpretation covers 61. The need for high-quality linguistic accessibility is a top priority at the center. Of the 32,590 individuals served in 2018, 38% were best accommodated in a language other than English. On average, 632 visits were conducted every day — the Lowell CHC is closed on Sundays. Data for 2019 is currently being finalized.
As its patient population has grown steadily over the decades, Lowell CHC has increased its services. New technology has been a welcome aid in recent years, including an iPad application that allows patients considering eyeglass styles to confer “face to face” with a person who speaks their primary language. Services of this kind, tailored to the specific needs of its clientele, help define the center’s community value.
While attention to language is vitally important in the treatment of individuals, the ideas, values and needs expressed through the language of a culture or group often have profound meaning. Lowell CHC is committed to a focus on both.
A prime example of this attention to specifics is the Metta Health Center at Lowell CHC. “Metta,” from Buddhist texts, can be understood as “loving kindness.” Established in 2000, Metta Health Center’s purpose is to meet the mental and physical health care needs of Lowell’s large Southeast Asian community, while acknowledging cultural perspectives so that patients can be served comfortably and effectively.
The center was one of the nation’s first “West Meets East” community health care facilities, and in its early years, members of Lowell CHC’s leadership spoke in-depth with Buddhist monks who contributed important insights. Meditation and traditional healing practices are an integral part of treatment at Metta, and services are available for those who have survived violent conflict and torture in their countries of origin.
Another community-tailored program unique to Lowell CHC is Teen BLOCK, which is housed in a suite of rooms at the Jackson Street building. There, local teenagers can hang out and participate in free programs such as the annual “Dance 4 Peace” performance — the cause in 2019 was suicide prevention. When I visited, two smiling teenagers were having fun with voluntary cleanup after a big holiday event.
Looking forward, Lowell CHC is implementing “Cultivating Health,” a 5-year strategic plan to meet the ever-evolving needs of the community. Levine is looking back with gratitude on those who have served with “care and compassion and an unyielding commitment to social justice.”