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Adrian Walker

Health center recovers

By Adrian Walker
Globe Columnist / October 10, 2011

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The problems at Harvard Street Neighborhood Health Center began right at the front door.

“When I started here the door was falling off the hinges,’’ said Dr. Chidi Achebe, the center’s charismatic director. “We had to put the door on the hinges and paint it. The whole place was a mess.’’

“Mess’’ is an understatement to describe a health center so troubled five years ago that it was nearly forced to close. Its facilities were completely inadequate. The staff was demoralized. Worst of all, its coffers had been raided - by a payroll consultant who earlier this year was indicted for stealing $750,000, some of which he allegedly spent on a Lamborghini.

I was among the vociferous critics of this community institution gone terribly wrong. So when I was invited back recently to view the progress of the last few years, I was delighted to see an institution that has been utterly righted by a new regime that was not afraid to make the major necessary changes.

The chief architects of the improvement have been Achebe and board chairman Stanley McLaren. When McLaren, an accountant, joined the board, he quickly discovered that the place had fallen into complete financial disarray, or worse. A tiny cabal of insiders had held the purse strings for years, with nothing resembling oversight or control, and a lot of money was unaccounted for.

“Questions just weren’t being asked,’’ McLaren told me last week. “It just didn’t make any sense.’’ After careful auditing, the board started making tough decisions about curtailing services the center just couldn’t afford.

Into this bleak picture walked Achebe, a man who is anything but bleak. He had served 10 years as medical director of the Whittier Street Community Health Center before deciding that he needed a better understanding of the business of health care. So he went to Yale for an MBA, and happened to be looking for a job three years ago when Harvard Street desperately needed leadership.

Achebe - the son of well-regarded novelist Chinua Achebe - had plenty of more lucrative options. But lucrative is not what drives him. Like his famous father, he has a deep streak of activism.

“I can always make money,’’ he said. “What I can’t get anywhere else is the feeling of being part of a movement that fundamentally turned things around for our community and improved the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.’’

Besides running the place, he sees patients for 20 hours a week, a necessity given Harvard Street’s tight budget.

As McLaren and Achebe made the case to funders and creditors that things were changing, potential supporters began to take notice. Heavyweights like Democratic honcho Phil Johnston and former attorney general Scott Harshbarger began to help raise money and sort out the legal headaches.

The once-bankrupt center in now (barely) in the black. A fund-raiser is planned for Oct. 21 at the Seaport Hotel; the center plans to honor the Rev. Charles Stith, Dr. Deborah Prothrow-Stith, and Mayor Thomas M. Menino. It’s the type of event Harvard Street couldn’t have pulled off a few years ago, when many were wary of opening their checkbooks to its leadership.

“Before, people wouldn’t give us grants because we weren’t trusted with money,’’ Achebe said. “Now people can’t stop giving us money.’’

Achebe said his work is far from done. A huge burned-out church sits about 100 feet from the health center, and Achebe figures it would make a perfect place to expand. That will require raising millions of dollars in a lousy economy. Achebe is convinced it can be done.

“When I started, I was surprised how grateful people were for small things,’’ Achebe said. “As a community we’re too grateful for small things. Then standards of Wellesley should be the standards of Dorchester. We deserve it. “

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com.