“We’re like a family.” That’s how the staff at Sant Belvi, (Good Life Center, in English,) describes their relationship with their clients. Some might say that the Dorchester-based center sometimes does a better job caring for their clients than their real families. The organization is also known as the Haitian Adult Day Health Center. Through the center, clients receive individualized services that meet their social, emotional and medical needs in a caring, dignified and respectful manner. Cultural responsiveness is at the heart of all interactions, activities and programs. Indeed, the spacious gathering area is warmly decorated with beautiful Haitian arts and crafts.
Seated at a desk at the entrance of the lobby, Lourdes Almonacy, one of the program assistants, greets visitors with a warm, welcoming smile. Most of the men and women are seated comfortably in armchairs and sofas watching a Haitian news program.
Clients are kept informed about local, national and international events. English programs are interpreted into Haitian Creole. While most programs and activities are conducted in the large gathering area, there are also meeting rooms available for small groups to pray, receive counseling, discuss religion as well as take literacy and ESL classes.
The center aims to make the clients as independent as possible. Marlyne Chery, the Assistant Director of the center, says “We do what their kids can’t do, due to their work schedules.” Transportation is provided from door to door by the center’s drivers. Since some clients are more self-sufficient than others, staff helps by taking them grocery shopping, to the bank and to send money to relatives in Haiti. Clients also receive nail and dental care. One of the areas that the center excels in is overseeing health needs. Chery says, “Our clients trust us to the point that if they’re sick overnight, they don’t call for an ambulance. They’re often afraid and don’t speak English well; so they would rather wait to get here because they trust us to care of them.” The staff does advise clients to call for an ambulance if it is an emergency.
The nursing station is led by Emilienne Valles and two other nurses: R. L. Sauld and Dady Norbrun. Some of the most common ailments they encounter are: hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol and coronary artery disease. Valles says, “When our clients first arrive here, we do a head-to-toe health assessment. We then oversee everything related to their health.” This includes making and taking them to doctors’ appointments, giving them their medications and keeping in touch with their doctors and families.
The staff acknowledges that it can be challenging caring for people who are set in their ways. For example, some clients don’t follow their diets and have difficulty restricting their salt and sugar intake. Therefore, the nursing staff educates them on these and other health issues. There are also monthly presentations by doctors and other health professionals on conditions such as glaucoma, cataracts, depression and breast cancer. Working at the center since 2008, Valles, says, “When some clients first arrive here, they usually have very high blood pressure, but we stabilize them. Some stop using their canes or walkers soon after they join the center.” She enjoys working at Sant Belvi, “I’m using my experience to help my people. I can’t go to Haiti to help; so working here is very rewarding.”
The nursing staff works closely with the meals staff which is headed by Bettina Eugene. She ensures that the breakfasts and lunches served adhere to each client’s specific dietary needs. Eugene also has the challenging task of preparing Haitian meals that respect state dietary specifications of less salt, sugar, rice and frying. She says, “At other centers, clients eat American foods, but here, if the meals aren’t Haitian, they won’t eat them.” Eugene, who has been with the center for two years, and her assistant, Margaret Michel, also educate the clients about healthy eating.
Like Eugene, Anne-Marie Jean-Louis does a lot of educating. In addition to teaching about US laws and civic obligations, Jean-Louis conducts citizenship, welfare, housing, social security benefits and other workshops. She even accompanies clients to their citizenship interviews. However, she readily admits that one of her best rewards is accompanying clients to their citizenship swearing-in ceremonies.
Hired in 2009 to assess client eligibility, she adds, “If I see something they need to know about, whether it’s related to health or lifestyle or religion, I teach it in an unbiased, non-judgmental way.” With 27 years of social work experience, Jean-Louis says, “For many years, I worked with mainstream Americans. Whatever I have left now, I want to give to my people. I treat them with respect and humility so they can feel like a human being. If I had to do it again, I would. The more I enter their world, the more I see them as a hidden treasure.”
Sant Belvi opened its doors in 2008 to meet the needs of retiring Haitians. Oswald Neptune, the director and one of the founders, recalls, “Haitians who had been in the United States for 40-50 years hoped to return to Haiti to retire. However, the country doesn’t have the infrastructure for them to go back. And they don’t want to go to a nursing home. Many people stayed at home alone with nothing to do. When Jean-Marc Jean-Baptiste, director of HAPHI (Haitian-American Public Health Initiatives) and I saw this need, we started working on this center and found a group of people to invest in it.”
When it first opened, the center only had six clients. Today, its 22 employees serve 170 clients. To qualify, applicants must have MassHealth insurance and be at least 65 years old. People with disabilities must be at least 18 years old. Junior Mengual, the director of Activities, details the daily activities he prepares for the clients. They include exercise, arts and crafts, storytelling, movies, crochet, sewing, dance therapy and others. Additionally, he offers games such as dominoes, Bingo and checkers. He says, “We teach them not to argue, to live well together and respect each other. I do the work with all my heart. I give them my all.” Exode Milfort and Lionel Charles, two of the drivers, are equally dedicated to the clients. Milfort says, “Once you start driving them, they are like family. We joke around in the van, and everybody’s happy.” Charles agrees, “The clients get used to us. They’re disappointed when they don’t see their regular driver.”
The clients sense this dedication on the part of the staff. Edner Pierre-Charles, 83, says, “I like it because before coming here, I stayed home. Here I can play dominoes, hear jokes and listen to music.” Rodolphe Mentor, 86, was there when the center first opened. He adds, “I was at another program, a bad one. So I told Oswald everything a good program should have. The staff treats us with respect. It’s like you’re home. I like the quality and courteous service. Even the drivers treat us with patience and respect.” Jean St. Cyr, 85, and his wife Philomene St. Cyr, 82, who have been married for 55 years, have also been coming to the center since its inception. He says, “Coming here makes me feel alive. Every employee helps us, from the director to the driver.” Edline Marcellus, 89, enjoys the sewing she does at the center. She says, “I used to use a cane but not anymore. I love the employees. They take care of me. If I don’t like the food, they give me something else. They treat me well.”
Neptune couldn’t be more pleased to hear these comments. He concedes that many elderly people need this center but don’t qualify because of their health insurance policies. So they stay home alone and lonely. He says, “Here, they meet old friends, and their families don’t have to worry about their safety. I’d love to see similar centers in Cambridge, Somerville and Brockton, cities with large Haitian populations. There’s a definite need.”