Uphill and Down on Walk Wednesday

According to Mónica Elias-Orellana, manager of community-building projects in Chelsea for The Neighborhood Developers, the nonprofit CDC on Gerrish Street that has built affordable new housing and refurbished older residences in Chelsea for many years, as many as a dozen or two people have shown up for one or another installment of the weekly stroll known as Walk Wednesday. “There’s a different mix every week,” she says, “but there are definitely some regulars.”

An hourlong ramble through the streets and parks of Chelsea, Walk Wednesday sets out from Chelsea Public Library at 9am every Wednesday, and everyone is welcome to come along.

The pictures on the group’s Facebook page, dating back to the origin of the Walk in 2015, attest to Mónica’s numbers. Here’s the group on a cool spring day, in windbreakers and ballcaps, at Port Park, between Eastern Mineral and Green Roots, Inc., on Marginal Way. Here they are posing in short sleeves and cut-offs on a hot summer day up by the Soldiers Home, on Powder Horn Hill, against a background view of Revere. And here they are posing in fall sweaters and wool caps on the steps of the library, just before setting out. 

“We started the Walk six years ago,” says Ron Fishman. In his work as community coordinator for Healthy Chelsea, a project sponsored by Massachusetts General Hospital’s Center for Community Health Improvement, Ron initiated Walk Wednesday in partnership with TND and Social Capital Inc. seven years ago. “Every Wednesday, weather permitting, we meet in front of Chelsea Public Library at 9am and go in a new direction. Last week we went north on Broadway, then left on the Mill River bike path that Green Roots developed, and across Powder Horn Hill and down.” In this case—a Wednesday in late winter—“we” are nine or ten adults, a toddler, and a small dog, with various relations to Chelsea and to each other, and we are taking another route.”

Stacy Aramal, a retired teacher and counselor from Worcester with heritage in Latin America and Russia, is here. So is Siboney Díaz-Sánchez, project and design manager for the TND affiliate Opportunity Communities, along with Carolina Ellenbird, the director of the anti-displacement office at GreenRoots, Inc. The two coordinators of Walk Wednesday—Grace Chilimunda, a volunteer for the Chelsea Community Connections Coalition and a GreenRoots board member, and a friendly woman named Taty who lives in TND housing—are here as well. And so is Darlene DeVita, creator of the photography-and-oral-history “People of Chelsea” series in the Chelsea Record.

“We started the Walk with other programs to combat common health problems,” says Ron, a Lynn resident who worked on small business development in Colombia for the Peace Corps as a younger man. “It’s an uphill battle, given the bad influences of fast, canned, and junk food, and the epidemic of obesity and related maladies like diabetes. Lots of Latinos in Chelsea came from rural areas in their home countries and ate better food”—fresh produce, eggs, chicken, tropical fruit, and tortillas, say—“before they moved to the States.”

Though today’s walk proceeds from the library to the rail-trail bike path just behind the TND office and the Family Dollar store, before long it turns, as most long walks in hilly Chelsea must, up the hill on Highland Street.

“Walking, uphill and down, is one way to prevent health problems, including those of the cardio-vascular variety,” says Ron. “Eating a healthy diet obviously is another. Healthy Chelsea offers nutrition programs too—especially in the schools.”

Taty, a Chelsea resident since 2005, is getting a more serious workout than most in the group. While her own three children are in school and her husband at work in a marble-and-granite stone yard in Everett, she’s babysitting this morning, and she is pushing a sleeping toddler named Roberto (“Todos lo llamamos Roby.” We all call him Roby.) ahead of her in his stroller.

“I have lived in TND housing for ten years now,” says Taty in the Spanish she brought here from El Salvador, “first in one of the old renovated brick buildings, but for three years now in the newer Acadia development. After we lost all of our possessions in a fire in another building in Chelsea, we slept on a cot in a vacant school for three months. Gracias a Dios que encontramos TND.” Thank God we found TND.

A friendly young fellow in a ball cap and a Covid mask, whose name we didn’t quite catch, was with us for the first part of the walk, but he had to head off to work and peeled off when we turned up Highland.

But Mitikei Chengerei, a vaccine ambassador for GreenRoots, Inc., a member of the Housing Equity Committee that Mónica Elias-Orellana coordinates for TND, and a former French teacher in her native Ethiopia, is here for the duration, and she has brought along her friend Missy. “It’s a nice group of people,” says Mitikei. “But I think I need to learn Spanish the way I know French!” Or do the rest of us need to learn her native Amharic as well as Spanish, French, and English?

“When people with scarce resources consume the most inexpensive available food to feed their families,” says Ron, “health problems ensue.” Foods laden with corn syrup, palm oil, and preservatives all contribute to those problems. Exercise doesn’t entirely offset them—but it certainly doesn’t hurt.” 

At the top of Highland, Taty gets to rest and let Roby run around in the playground of Bellingham Hill Park for a while. Monica lets her little dog April, stylishly outfitted in a green jacket, off her leash for a short time as well. 

Siboney, the project and design manager from Opportunity Communities, describes her work on a new TND project at 25 Sixth Street. “I teach at Boston Architectural College,” she says, “and three of my students have interned on the project with me.” Those three came along on Walk Wednesday last week, apparently.

Then Mónica, after admiring the view of downtown Boston, points to an apartment building on nearby Cottage Street where a Venezuelan friend, Livio Arias Torres, a choral director, singer, and guitarist who liked to play at local churches, was apprehended by ICE agents in 2013. While seeking political asylum from the Hugo Chávez government, he was detained, in frail health at age 70, for 10 months, then deported to Venezuela. “It was awful,” Mónica remembers.

But suddenly Ron, the MGH advocate for a Healthy Chelsea, is lining everyone up to take a photograph on Taty’s phone, then exchanging places with Taty so that she can take a picture that includes him.

On the way downhill to Broadway—for downhill is the way we hope the battle for a Healthy Chelsea will go— Stacy, the retired teacher who moved to Chelsea from Worcester several years ago, describes the dire need for a community center in Chelsea and voices her hope that the city might acquire the vacant school at Saint Rose Church, right across from TND, for that purpose. “I’m writing a letter to Cardinal O’Malley,” she says, “on the off-chance that he’ll read it and give us the space.”

It’s kind of a wonderful way to spend an hour on a Wednesday morning, especially if you’re spending some of your retired-guy’s free time helping out with TND’s publicity projects in Chelsea. With spring weather here, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more come out next Wednesday to meet us at 9:00 a.m. on the steps of the Chelsea Public Library for a walk.

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