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Yvonne Abraham

Ideal role close to home

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / November 8, 2009

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Ruth Ellen Fitch has traveled worlds beyond the Harrishof Street house in Roxbury where she grew up during the fifties and sixties.

Back then, being black could sting. On summer trips to visit her grandmother in Virginia, her family carefully planned stops at friends’ houses along the route: They knew they wouldn’t be welcome in the motels.

Fitch got used to being among the first, and the few: One of a handful of black students at Boston Girls’ Latin School; One of just three black freshmen at Barnard College, where she was assigned to a rare single room.

“It got around the issue of who would be my roommate,’’ she recalls, matter-of-factly.

None of this got in her way. Fitch graduated with a degree in economics. She married, moved to Brookline, and ran the town’s METCO program.

At 37, with two kids, she enrolled in law school at Harvard. She became the first African-American woman to make partner at Palmer & Dodge. She retired after 20 years there, in 2003.

Her third career has deposited Fitch right back where she began, in a couple of ways.

First, there is the geography: At the Dimock Center, where she became president and CEO five years ago, her office is a couple of blocks from the green shingled house of her childhood.

Second, there is the battle: Despite the huge progress wrought by civil rights advances, a lot of the people Fitch serves - mostly black and Latino - face obstacles almost as huge and stubborn as those she overcame 40-plus years ago.

Five years after she took over, Fitch is still thrilled to be back in the neighborhood. Her history, and her command of complexity (at Palmer & Dodge, she specialized in municipal financing), make her an inspired pick to lead the Dimock. She is also uncommonly wired, having served on umpteen nonprofit boards, working closely with Mayor Thomas M. Menino when, as an attorney, she represented his city.

Fitch needs all the connections she can get. Her ambitions are expensive. Her handsome, nine-acre, nine-building campus is much more than a community health center. It offers its 12,000 clients not just medical and dental care, but homeless shelter, detox beds, mental health services, Head Start programs, job training, and GED classes, among other things. There is nothing like this place in Boston.

Pediatric doctors refer parents and kids to the Head Start program. A diabetic can go right from the doctor’s office to the eye care center. An adult seeing a counselor for anxiety can enroll in a GED program.

“We’re cited as a model of holistic care,’’ Fitch says, proudly. “We make access to health care easy for people. And we give them no excuses.’’

Their need for the services is more urgent lately. Sitting in her office in Roxbury, Fitch has a unique perspective on the economic downturn. She has seen her client rolls swell, and her child care programs fill as parents scramble to find extra work. She sees more people who need mental health services, detox beds, temporary shelter, GED classes.

“I see a community struggling,’’ she says. “This is a community where people are the first to lose their jobs, and they have the hardest time finding the next one. They’re close to the edge.’’

A place like this doesn’t come cheap. The Center’s budget last year was $29 million, about $2 million raised from private donations. Last night, Fitch was set to preside over her fifth Steppin’ Out for the Dimock Center, the annual gala that pays for a big chunk of the vital services.

The idea of standing at that podium at the Westin Waterfront might have seemed unlikely to the girl who lived on Harrishof Street all those years ago. But watching Fitch’s passion for the Dimock, you get the sense it’s exactly where her remarkable journey was headed all along.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at Abraham@globe.com