Nick LeBlanc knows the exact moment the idea for a School-Based Health Center came to New Bedford. He received an excited call in the spring of 2017 from Alex Weiner, his high school classmate and friend since the fifth grade.

LeBlanc, now a local science teacher, listened as Weiner described a primary care facility for students and families inside a Connecticut high school.

Weiner, who was on his pediatric rotation for a nursing degree, said that the school he saw “looked and felt like New Bedford,” except that when students with complicated medical issues went to the nurse, they were referred directly to the school’s own clinic.

They immediately called Ken Vasques, another high school classmate. It turned out that Vasques had just written a paper about School-Based Health Centers (SBHCs), and he thought New Bedford would be a great candidate to get one.

So the three friends started getting together in the evenings to write a proposal for a SBHC in New Bedford. They came up with a document, which they call their “white paper,” that cites the physical and mental health needs of students in their hometown, including a teen pregnancy rate three times higher than the state average and more than 10% of students reporting having “seriously considering suicide” in the year 2017.

Five years and one global pandemic later, their idea is on the verge of becoming a reality. Next month, the School Committee is set to vote on a proposal for a SBHC with start-up costs that will be covered by COVID relief funds — including a large grant known as ESSER III — and whose daily operations will be run by the Greater New Bedford Community Health Center (GNBCHC), where Vasques and Weiner now both work as nurse practitioners.

Outside the Greater New Bedford Community Health Center, Alex Weiner (center) met up with Nick LeBlanc (left) and one of LeBlanc’s former students, now employed at GNBCHC. Credit: Colin Hogan / The New Bedford Light

“It’s a long process, and one of the key factors in getting a community to rally around a SBHC is having a champion,” said Allison Kilcoyne, president of the Massachusetts School-Based Health Association. These three friends from New Bedford “are those champions,” she said. “They just didn’t stop; they kept asking those questions.”

Kilcoyne, who oversees and advocates for many SBHC projects, said that the main benefit is to “connect with youth on their terms.” Providing preventative health care where students already go every day can “help youth make better choices.” She said that the results can be transformative for health and academic outcomes, citing research that SBHCs lead to higher graduation rates and increase Black and Latino males’ access to health care by a factor of 10 or more.

When Weiner was doing his own research, everything he found “made me realize how good of an idea it was.”

“Living and working in this community,” said Vasques, “it was pretty obvious they would benefit.”

“If I can see the lives of my students and neighbors get better,” LeBlanc added, “then that’s mission accomplished.”

LeBlanc and Weiner first met in the fifth grade, at a program in New Bedford’s Sea Lab. After graduating from New Bedford High together in 2006, they stayed in touch — often about public health issues that got them both energized. LeBlanc met Vasques in the ninth grade, and they also started a friendship that included frequent discussions about ideas in health and science. Vasques and Weiner ended up as college roommates. And on a recent sunny day in downtown New Bedford, all three were catching up about a mutual friend’s wedding, their weekend plans, and the need for better public health infrastructure in New Bedford.

“I think a lot of us had this notion of coming back and serving in some way,” Weiner said.

LeBlanc said this idea brought them together again because it merged their expertise in health and education.

“Education is a public health issue. It’s directly related to problems like homelessness. And it’s one of the prongs of an approach that can raise the well-being of our neighbors and students.”

“It came down to need,” Vasques explained about the biggest challenges. “I was interested to find out what communities get these. How do organized or wealthy communities get these.” 

One of the first things that they noticed in their research was the utter lack of School-Based Health Centers in southeastern Massachusetts. With the exception of Provincetown, there are none south of Boston or East of Worcester.

“New Bedford and the South Coast was always one of the areas that was void of these centers,” said Bartlett.

Bringing a SBHC to this area could have profound impacts on how residents are able to access health care, they say.

“We have a high-needs population. A lot of students are on public insurance, have special needs,” said Wanda Nunes, nursing supervisor at New Bedford Public Schools. Common issues that students face are a lack of transportation, scheduling difficulties, and language barriers.

And having a SBHC would actually complement the nurse’s efforts, says Cheryl Bartlett, CEO of the Greater New Bedford Community Health Center. Bartlett, a former nurse and the first nurse to serve as director of the state Department of Public Health, will oversee the operations of the SBHC.

School nurses’ jobs will improve, she said, when they can directly consult with the primary care provider. The benefits for students would be the greatest, though, because they can get medical diagnoses and prescriptions without interfering with their class schedule.

That means treatment actually incentivizes school attendance rather than conflicting with it.

On a recent sunny day in downtown New Bedford, Alex Wiener, Ken Vasques, and Nick LeBlanc caught up about a mutual friends’ wedding, their weekend plans, and the need for better public health infrastructure in New Bedford. Credit: Colin Hogan / The New Bedford Light

Last month, School Committee members, including ex-officio member Mayor Jon Mitchell, were vocally supportive and even congratulatory after hearing a presentation on the manifold benefits of SBHCs. Their main questions were about how the center would be funded.

And, Kilcoyne, of the Mass. School-Based Health Association, agreed that the hardest part is usually securing start-up costs.

But Wanda Nunes, Cheryl Bartlett, and Jodi Spencer, the manager of health services for New Bedford Public Schools, had already solved this. They were able to work with the district to use one-time Coronavirus Relief Funds to defray the expense. According to Andrew O’Leary, the district’s financial director, $3 million dollars of the total $41 million in ESSER III (the third installment of COVID funds) will go toward building a modular facility on the grounds of New Bedford High School.

“It will be a fully functional medical facility,” he said, including meeting rigorous health standards set by the state.

For the day-to-day costs, the Greater New Bedford Community Health Center won an additional federal grant, known as HRSA, that will renew every year in which the center demonstrates it is meeting its stated goals.

“I think we have all the pieces in place,” said Bartlett. “It’s a really exciting opportunity for us and for the kids in New Bedford.”

“I’m thrilled,” said Weiner about sitting before the School Committee, potentially seeing the idea that started with his phone call to a friend in 2017. “It’s been five years. We talked about different iterations of how this could go and what it would look like. So being at the School Committee meeting and having members ask about these ideas … I thought the reception of it went really well.”

“This initiative is like a living thing,” said Vasques. He thinks about all the people now involved, from grant-writing, to design, to operations. “It requires a lot of work to sustain and foster its growth.” He added that there’s so much possibility for what the center could provide, from mental health to vaccinations. “We’re just beginning to understand what the start looks like, and I’m excited to see it grow.”

LeBlanc knows the students whom the new center will affect. “Access is everything. This provides more access for the student body, which they deserve.” If there’s one thing he wants people to know about a School-Based Health Center, it’s that “other communities have this, and have had it for a while. There’s opportunity out there to get our basic needs met, and it’s about time it happens.”

The School Committee meets at 6 p.m., Monday, at Keith Middle School, although the School-Based Health Center proposal is not expected to be voted on until next month. 

Email Colin Hogan at chogan@newbedfordlight.org.

Editor’s note: This story was updated on Aug. 15, 2022, to reflect a change in the School Committee’s agenda. The School-Based Health Center proposal is expected to be considered next month.

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