Blackstone Looks to BU Students on Break to Help Solve Challenges

By Seth Daniel

The Blackstone Community Center can often be hidden in plain sight.

While the building seems easy enough to figure out, many mistake it for the Blackstone Elementary School, which is attached to it. Others find it difficult because the center’s address doesn’t match up with the actual entrance behind the school and next to the basketball courts.

Finally, old attitudes about turf disputes can make it difficult to get kids from one part of the neighborhood up to the Blackstone area.

All of those problems were identified by the board of the Blackstone Community Center, and a dozen or so Boston University students in teams set forth to spend their spring breaks last week solving those problems. Boston University has a historic connection to the Center, having provided funding for the Fitwell Center and other initiatives, and last week they also held the third Spring Break Challenge.

The major problem facing the students this year was how to more effectively get kids from the Lenox-Camden Housing Development up the street to use the Blackstone.

“A very positive thing about this is they are responding to the community,” said Harold Cox of the BU School of Public Health. “A problem has been identified by the people at the Blackstone. Blackstone has identified problems for them to work on and this year it was getting Lenox-Camden folks to come to the Blackstone Community Center. Our students acted as consultants.”

Added Kathleen MacVarish of the BU School of Public Health, “A half mile up the road doesn’t seem like a long way, but it’s really a wall in the community. From an outsider’s standpoint it looks like it’s right down the street, but there is a barrier and these students tried to define that barrier and produce suggestions to try to break it down.”

Kerry Dunnell, of the BU Activist Lab, said students from several divisions of the School of Public Health give up their Spring Break to take on the challenge, and to get real-world experience in one week’s time.

On Monday, March 6, students reported to the Center and took in information about it, and then traveled to Lenox-Camden for a tour of that development. They also met with Boston Housing Authority (BHA) for more information. On Tuesday, the students learned how to run focus groups and how to conduct key informant interviews.

One day later, they performed real-life focus groups and key informant interviews to learn about the barriers and ideas about the Blackstone Community Center. On Thursday, they tied up loose ends, and wrote their five-page report and Power Point presentation.

By last Friday, they had major suggestions to solve the problems.

“We are always talking about real-world public health and this is real world,” she said.

The students suggested everything from better signage to social media campaigns to having off-site open houses.

“There are some high-crime areas we learned about that kids have to cross to get from Lenox-Camden to the Blackstone and many are hesitant to do that,” said Yige Cao in her team’s presentation. “That can serve as a barrier. We recommend that young people are instructed to use the Tremont Street route rather than Washington Street or Shawmut Avenue. The Center also has a shuttle bus that is underutilized. We recommend using that two or three times a week to pick them up at Lenox so they don’t have to cross that zone.”

Student Paige Pajarillo added that there are several City Street Workers who are already working in the two communities and were excited to connect young people to the services at Blackstone.

“They are invested in the community,” she said. “This is tapping into a resource that’s already there.”

The suggestions continued most of the morning, with ideas about cooking classes and more things to do for teen girls.

Southender John Chambers, of the Blackstone board, was one of the judges of the teams that presented. He said there is a challenge to getting kids from the Lenox-Camden to the Blackstone, and also to get the word out to other neighborhoods about the activities and services offered there. He said he was encouraged by the effort put into the presentations and the information unearthed by the students in such a short period of time.

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