‘This is my life’: Health center chief Laptiste, a Bowdoin St. native, knows what’s up in her community

Phillomin Laptiste in her office, which looks out on Bowdoin Street. Joel Haskell photo

Phillomin “Philly” Laptiste knows the Bowdoin/Geneva neighborhood like the back of her hand. Born and raised on Bowdoin Street, she “just kind of always stayed local,” as she puts it.

Laptiste never strayed too far from home in her formative years, attending what was then the John Marshall Elementary (now the UP Academy) on Westville Street and St. Peter’s Middle School before moving on to Boston Latin and Emerson College.

As the executive director of the Bowdoin Street Health Center and a leader in public health recently tapped for a seat on the city’s Board of Health, Laptiste has built a career around community advocacy, dedicating her life to improving the lives of those immediately around her. She is so vested in the well being of her neighbors for the simple reason that she, along with her family and her two daughters, is a resident.

During an interview in her office with the Reporter last week, Laptiste said that when something happens in the neighborhood, it impacts her, as well.

“This is not just a job for me,” she said. “This is my life.”

Yet until 11 years ago, Laptiste had never set foot in the health center, which is down the street from where she has lived her whole life. That changed the day when Laptiste noticed several missed calls from her mother, who had been taking care of her one-year-old daughter, Deanna. After rushing home from her job at the American Diabetes Association, Laptiste recalled her panic turning to terror when she was told that her mother and baby were at the health center. But, she soon learned, her daughter was in capable hands.

“They brought me right upstairs to an exam room where my daughter was very lethargic and not really responding, just crying and moaning and they were asking me all sorts of questions,” said Laptiste. “The attending physician was Dr. Anthony Bonacci, who worked here for about 44 years, and he said, ‘You know, I don’t think there’s anything we can do further for her; we’re gonna send her to Children’s Hospital.’”

Her doctors at Children’s determined that Deanna was experiencing side effects from a medication that her mother’s father took for his tremors. She had found a pill on the floor and swallowed it. She will be fine, though, the doctors told Laptiste.

Minutes later, she was told there was a phone call for her in the nurse’s office. “It was Dr. Bonacci asking me how’s my daughter doing, how am I doing, and what are my follow-up steps, and, you know, making sure that I had all the information that I needed,” said Laptiste. “And he invited me back to visit at the health center.”

Through that harrowing experience, Laptiste developed a special bond with the health center. Months later, she noticed an opening at the center for manager of Community Health. She got the job and instantly felt at home.

“I do have very much of a personal connection to the health center because of the emergency with my daughter,” she said, “but more importantly, in working here, I found that a lot of the work that we did in community health was not just focused on managing issues that we identify are huge risks to our patients, but also on doing meaningful work in the community and engaging community residents.”

Laptiste soon identified two major issues facing the Bowdoin Geneva community: violence and food insecurity.

“When I first started in community health, one of the biggest things that we were challenged with was the neighborhood being identified as a food desert,” said Laptiste. At the time, Bowdoin/Geneva had a lot of bodegas, but no grocery stores. But a series of initiatives spearheaded by Laptiste and the health center has changed that.

“Food in the Hood,” an organization that Laptiste inherited, started a weekly farmer’s market in the center’s parking lot, one of few in the city at the time. The center also enlisted the help of the Fresh Truck, a refurbished, refrigerated school bus that functions as a mobile walk-on produce aisle to provide access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Then, after America’s Food Basket opened its store, Laptiste led a “Healthy Corner Store Initiative” to make nutritious foods more visible and more accessible.

“That was really about moving all the really inexpensive 25-cent bags of chips and unhealthy food further back and really highlighting the fruits and vegetables as people enter the store,” she explained.

The center also worked with Mayor Martin Walsh in 2017 to establish a Neighborhood Trauma Team on site to support healing in the community in the aftermath of tragedy. Laptiste said that the health center’s behavioral health services team of five social workers and two psychiatrists offers mental health resources to any member of the public grappling with the pain of loss, a program deeply personal to Laptiste, who lost a cousin to gun violence in 2011.

“If you were impacted by violence in any way, shape, or form, whether it be through community violence or what have you, it does fall under this grant,” said Laptiste. “So if we’re doing outreach after a violent event, we can offer those services. But one thing I find, having done outreach myself, is that a lot of times these instances are so fresh that there’s so much going on for the individual that they can’t even begin to think about it. So part of the protocol now is that we have is we do check-ins every three months.

For Laptiste, her new role on the Board of Health represents a chance to share and expand on her vision of community advocacy.

“I’m super excited about it,” she said. “I’m looking at being an advocate for the work that’s happening and also looking at opportunities that are presented. Like, what can I share and what can I bring to the table?”