Two years later, Codman Square continues to serve Haiti quake survivors

Victims of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti continue to find solace and medical help at Dorchester’s Codman Square Health Center, which has created a special program to focus on the specific needs of the Haitian clients still coping with the after-effects of the disaster.

Olivia Appolon, a social worker at Codman who has worked there since 2001, estimates that the behavioral care staff saw an increase of 80 new Haitian patients in the first few months after the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake.

“I’ve been here for a number of years and it had been difficult to get Haitian patients to utilize behavioral health services,” Appolon said. “People have been more receptive of these services since the quake.”

Many patients came in during the immediate aftermath with symptoms and somatic complaints like headaches, upset stomach and feeling fatigued described Appolon.

“They would say ‘Kò m pa bon’ I’m not feeling well and when testing didn’t prove any organic causes, we realized the only thing they all had in common were that they were survivors of the quake.”

At the numerous Haiti Relief Clinics, staff provided physical check-ups and preliminary mental evaluations, along with information about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to help them manage the symptoms. Though most of the patient base was in Boston (mainly Mattapan and Dorchester) people came from Randolph, Brockton, Cambridge, Malden and Everett. These clinics lasted through July 2010.

Now, the health center is launching a new series dubbed the Haitian Support Program, which will gather survivors in a group setting every other Saturday beginning Jan. 15.

“In the beginning, the focus was to help with basic needs like immigration, housing and food,” said France Belizaire, another social worker who was part of Codman’s initial response team. “People that would come from Haiti, would get all their shots, a full check up, then see a clinician, get an eval and join the group.”

“There wasn’t a lot of therapy,” adds Appolon. “If [patients] needed therapy we would refer them on an individual basis. We provided what can be called psychological first-aid."

The program is funded by a federal grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration and is locally administered by the state’s Department of Public Health (DPH).
Patients received comprehensive care free of charge, which included medical, dental, eye health and behavioral services.

Staff track patient care and status in monthly reports on various issues that they discuss in sessions, including housing, immigration and nutrition. Currently, 10-12 (in addition to 6-8 children) are consistent clients every other Saturday.

Two years after the quake, many survivors are confronting challenges with getting jobs, access to limited benefits and immigration.

“This year, some of the clients are taking ESL courses and have jobs,” said Belizaire. “We call clients to see if they will come to the group and many cannot.”

For those who have yet to find work, learning English is important for them says Belizaire.

“The process can be stressful. They say ‘alright, I’ve been here for a year, and I applied for a job but haven’t [gotten] a job.”

Outreach manager Beatrice Martin helps many clients get access to resources. She refers clients to training programs along with Codman Square’s Health Leads program – which helps low-income residents with food stamps and bill payment.

“While many are dealing with this tough economy, they are still coping with grief and loss,” said Belizaire.

Two years after the earthquake that led these survivors to Boston, to Dorchester, the providers say their patients have served as inspiration.

“Many Haitians pick up the pieces and keep pressing forward.”