In East Boston, a Bridge to Success for High School Students

With more than 300,000 patient visits per year, the half-century-old East Boston Neighborhood Health Center is among the largest community health centers in the country. EBNHC has long provided mental health services for students at East Boston High School, and indeed launched a full student health center there five years ago. 

Cutbacks did away with the center one year, dealing a blow to an underserved community. But that has changed with the support of the Shah Family Foundation. “This year, we once again have a fully funded student wellness center,” says Thomas Kelleher, administrative director of Mental Health. 

In addition, thanks to a grant from Boston Children's Collaboration for Community Health, EBNHC and EBHS have launched East Boston Bridge. Modeled on the Bridge for Resilient Youth in Transition (BRYT) program of the Brookline Center for Community Mental Health, Bridge is a school-based program providing comprehensive therapeutic, academic, care coordination, and family supports to students with serious mental health and medical challenges. 

Community challenges


According to Census data, 58% of East Boston’s population is Hispanic. The neighborhood has the largest percentage of undocumented immigrants in the Boston area. That makes access to mental health services especially important. “There are so many challenges and cultural barriers,” says Kelleher. “We’re often working with rural immigrants from very poor parts of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Colombia. Part of what we do is get the parents to understand anxiety and stress. Many of these families have had a tough trip through the Mexican desert, remember.”


He adds that the stressors don’t end once families land in East Boston. Far from it. Undocumented parents may work two or three jobs; child care, overcrowded housing, and food insecurity are all issues for many of the youth served by EBNHC. 


That’s where the East Boston Bridge comes in. Funding has allowed EBNHC to hire two fulltime staffers. An academic coordinator tutors students and works with counselors and teachers, creating individual plans to get youth on track academically. And a behavioral health coordinator evaluates students, counsels them, and serves as a case manager, connecting youth with care providers where needed.

EBNHC is quick to credit the Brookline Center’s aforementioned BRYT program for assistance in developing Bridge. “We’ve had a friendly relationship with EBNHC leaders for quite some time,” notes Paul Hyry-Dermith, BRYT director. “In spring 2018, we began working closely with leaders at East Boston High toward developing a program there. When we learned about the funding opportunity associated with Boston Children’s, we reached out … to explore development of a proposal, with EBNHC serving as the lead.”

BRYT helped with job descriptions; an online toolkit of program materials and forms; and an evaluation plan. With these and other resources, Kelleher believes East Boston can eventually match Brookline’s success. “Typically, a kid remains in the program six to twelve weeks,” he says. We want 85% [of students] to get back on track for graduation.” He also points to BRYT’s remarkable success in reducing from 50% to 8% the dropout rate for students with serious mental health issues. “That’s a real difference,” Kelleher says. “These kids are very fragile—but they’re also very resilient.”