Volunteers canvass East Boston in effort to fight drug abuse

City campaign seeks to gather public health data

By Hannah McBride
Globe Correspondent / January 31, 2010

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Information packets hung from doorknobs of three-deckers up and down Saratoga Street in East Boston as volunteers canvassed the neighborhood yesterday, knocking on some 8,000 doors to distribute substance abuse information and ask residents about the health of their community.

Dr. Barbara Ferrer, director of the Boston Public Health Commission, said the undertaking was the largest single-day campaign to get public health information from any neighborhood in Boston. Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s office teamed with the public health department to launch the effort after the arrest last month of John M. Forbes, Menino’s East Boston liaison, on charges of dealing prescription painkillers.

“The mayor’s committed to making sure out of this comes real problem-solving and real solutions,’’ Ferrer said.

The information on the hundreds of completed surveys will be compiled and presented at a city-organized community summit in two weeks. The quick turnaround will provide residents with up-to-date information for dealing with substance-abuse issues - the most recent data the BPHC has is from 2007, Ferrer said.

“This is not a one-time thing,’’ she said. “We’re here today to start learning.’’

Bundled up against temperatures in the teens, volunteers Rita Nieves and Haidy Pena worked their way up Faywood Avenue in Orient Heights. They stopped at each house and apartment, taking notes on residents’ concerns. Though the survey was initially designed to cover drug abuse, the volunteers noted everything from trash pickup to flu vaccinations to potholes.

Pena, who lives in Mattapan, said she came out because she wanted to help people struggling with drug problems, no matter where they live.

“If we can do anything to help, give information, save one life, it makes me feel better,’’ Pena said.

East Boston resident Abdel El-Andelesy talked with volunteers outside a coffee shop on Bennington Street. He said he knows the city has resources to help addicts, but the people he sees doing drugs don’t care.

“If we leave these kids taking drugs, it will not go away,’’ he said.

Andelesy, who has two young children, said surveys like this one open up a conversation so the whole community can deal with the issues it faces. “With this, you get my opinion and you get everyone’s opinion so we can talk about it,’’ he said.

Ferrer said face-to-face interaction builds trust and strengthens the community, helping aid the effort to curb drug use.

“It tells people how much we care,’’ she said. “That’s a powerful message, not only for people with substance abuse problems but for people who want to know that we’re here to help.’’