HER Saturday Brings Health & Hope to Boston's Homeless Women

By Susan Krenn ‘04

A HER Saturday signAwesome. A peaceful happy environment. A getaway from homeless time. These are just a few of the ways that women describe HER Saturday, an integral piece of the Women’s Health Initiative of Boston Healthcare for the Homeless Program (BHCHP). BHCHP, led by Dr. Jim O’Connell ‘70, began providing comprehensive care for the homeless in 1985 and now offers services at more than 60 locations throughout greater Boston. HER Saturday (HER stands for Health, Empowerment and Resources) began in 2017 and serves an average of 100 to 150  women—and on occasion as many as 200—each week.   

Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with Barb Boylan ‘78 about her involvement with HER Saturday and BHCHP. Barb is a member of the ND Club of Boston, one of three inaugural recipients of the ND Alumni Association’s $5,000 Lennon Life Prize. The Prize is part of the Chuck and Joan Lennon Gospel of Life Initiative, a set of programs aimed at activating the University’s robust clubs network to be forces for good in upholding the value of life at all stages. The Boston Club used the Lennon Life Prize to strengthen their partnership with BHCHP, and in particular, HER Saturday.

The Challenges of Being a Homeless Woman in Boston

According to the BHCHP’s website, about a third of their patients -- 11,000 each year --  are women. And while their Women’s Health Initiative has targeted women’s needs for many years through services like women’s health clinics at shelters throughout Boston, HER Saturday provides a new and different opportunity to reach women who may not otherwise interact with BHCHP.

It may not surprise you to learn that women are among the most vulnerable of Boston’s homeless population. BHCHP’s website states, “Compared to women in the general population, women experiencing homelessness are far less likely to seek preventive care like regular mammograms and PAP smears, putting them at greater risk for advanced breast and cervical cancer.” They also face higher rates of physical and sexual trauma, acute illnesses, chronic health problems, and untreated mental illness.

In creating HER Saturday, “[BHCHP] wanted to create a women’s only space — a place for [them] to come off the streets, relax, learn about their health and get services that they may be reluctant to access during the week when our building is a lot busier,” says BHCHP Associate Medical Director Melinda Thomas. In addition, HER Saturday clinicians embrace trauma-informed care, which involves holistic treatment as well as recognizing and responding to past trauma that women may have experienced.

Insider’s View of HER Saturday

Erin Clark '16 volunteers at the diabetes awareness tableIf you were to visit the BHCHP headquarters in Boston’s South End on a Saturday morning, you’d see “the lobby area is totally transformed,” says Barb Boylan. It’s part clinic, part health fair, and part coffee shop/spa -- in a safe, friendly, women-only environment.

You might grab a cup of coffee and a snack as you walk in, making your way through the health education tables to gather information and giveaways. Maybe you’d get a haircut from a trained stylist or have your nails done by a HER Saturday volunteer. Beyond the lobby, you might visit a medical or behavioral healthcare provider. Maybe you’d refill a prescription for a much-needed medicine or get the cancer screening you’d been putting off.  You might see a case manager for non-medical needs such as getting a pair of gloves or winter boots. While chatting with other women, maybe you’d play bingo, take a yoga or zumba class, make a craft, or watch a movie.

The alumnae of ND Boston wear many ‘hats’ on any given Saturday: assignments can range from assisting with client triage, health education tables, or case management services to volunteering at the front desk, the craft and make-up table, the refreshment station, giveaway table, and more. ND Boston’s involvement paved the way for healthier snacks, according to Barb. Part of the Lennon Life Prize funds go toward a hearty cup of oatmeal for the women of HER Saturday, a marked improvement over previous options.

Surrounded by supportive staff and volunteers, it’s easy to see why so many homeless women come back week after week. And as the calendar flips forward, Saturday after Saturday, more women are able to envision a future beyond homelessness.

The Lasting Impacts of HER Saturday

A BHCHP article commemorating the one-year anniversary of HER Saturday details its tremendous impact: “The women ... have grown to deeply trust our staff and volunteers, allowing us to share in their greatest joys and their most difficult struggles. Because of this trusting relationship, many of the women have found this to be a safe place to talk about the trauma in their lives, including physical and sexual assault. This women-only space has led to safe sharing of experiences with each other in impromptu discussions around the nail table and with staff in private one-on-one conversations. HER Saturday has proven to be a place to express many of the common concerns shared by this diverse group of women.”

From Barb’s descriptions of HER Saturday, it’s clear that ND Boston’s alumnae volunteers have observed similar positive effects, both for participants and volunteers. Abbey Murphy ‘16, another volunteer, talks about the ongoing process of building trust with the women and says, “I focus on serving as best I can and doing whatever I can to make the women's lives a little easier while they are there.” Similarly, Cathy Hamel ‘81, nurse practitioner for BHCHP says, “Be in the moment, and you’ll know what the women need.”

Patti Peterson, volunteer and parent of an ND junior, adds, “My short time on Saturday morning reminds me of the many blessings of a home, clothing and food. But also, a needle and thread to repair a ripped seam, an outlet to charge a cell phone, a chair to sit on, a bag to put one’s things in, a band aid for a cut, a warm coat, pair of socks or gloves. I think about how good it makes me feel to have my nails cut and polished. How nice it is to have a familiar face welcome me somewhere. All things I take for granted.”

Fellow volunteer Erin Clark ‘16 says, “One of my greatest takeaways from participating in HER Saturdays has been understanding compassion. It's really easy to be compassionate toward those accepted by society, for example, sick children or wounded warriors. It's a lot more difficult to be compassionate toward people on the outskirts of society, like the homeless. By volunteering at HER Saturdays I've had the opportunity to challenge my misconceptions. I've seen strength and resiliency in women who have faced struggles unimaginable to me. These women are a lot more than their diagnoses or their status in life.”

For those looking to give back by joining the HER Saturday team, it’s not a commitment for the faint of heart. For one thing, volunteer absences do not go unnoticed. “If you’re missing – they miss you!” Barb says. Moreover, to volunteer, each person must be medically approved -- including receiving a checklist of immunizations -- and attend a mandatory BHCHP Orientation training.

But HER Saturday is well worth the time and effort. The opportunity to form personal relationships with women of all ages and backgrounds is a benefit for all involved, whether staff member, volunteer, or patient. Or as Barb puts it, “It’s unbelievable – what you learn about yourself and other women.”

For those who wish to learn more about getting involved with HER Saturday at BHCHP, please email the ND Boston Club at communityservice@ndboston.com. You may also visit the Boston Healthcare for the Homeless website at https://www.bhchp.org.

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