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News The Heartbeat of Roxbury

2/08/2022
  • Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission

Media Contact for The Heartbeat of Roxbury

Colleen G. Casey, Director of Communication

a group of diverse people at picnic table

Roxbury — The Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission (MRC) defines what it does first and foremost by its impact on those the agency serves. Community is integral to MRC’s mission and the agency takes every opportunity to amplify the voice of the community. Over the years, MRC has expanded its role in the community to meet people with disabilities where they are, literally and metaphorically.  

MRC offices serve as a connection point– an important piece of the fabric of communities across the state, linking people with the resources they need. Since opening its doors in the early 1970’s, the Roxbury Office exemplifies the agency's commitment to the diverse communities.  

Transformative Programming

"The Roxbury Office is in the heart of the community and is connected with the various organizations that could potentially make referrals and or hire our job seekers,” says Assistant Commissioner for Vocational Rehabilitation Joan Phillips. "Our Roxbury staff and understand the challenges our job seekers face beyond having a disability." 

Before her role as Assistant Commissioner, Phillips served as the Roxbury Area Office Director, beginning her journey with MRC in 2004. In her time as Area Director, Phillips led transformative efforts that still have an impact across the Commonwealth today. "I began to implement some programming that I thought would be helpful," she said. The Roxbury Office started a transition initiative where the agency would hold monthly meetings connecting schools in the area and special education directors to discuss ongoing challenges and how MRC could collaborate to better serve individuals in the community. They held the agency's first Transition Fair for high school juniors and seniors, where young adults and their families could meet with higher-ed representatives and employers. They also started the Roxbury Office Employer Advisory Board to connect job seekers with hiring businesses. 

Incubator for Leadership

The daughter of Haitian immigrants, Renelien, says the office gives people hope and changes lives. With her background and being bilingual, she made an even more significant impact. "In certain cultures, the way disability is spoken about is often kept quiet in the family. There can be shame associated with it, and the feeling of not wanting to seek outside help," she says. "My goal was to dispel that myth and educate and empower individuals." Renelien was promoted to supervisor role and area director prior to holding her current role. She says the office provided her with a training ground to manage diverse staff and community needs. "If you don't have the goods, they'll tell you," she says.  

Jo Davis, the current Roxbury Area Office Director, began her career with MRC more than 35 years ago as a temporary administrative assistant in the Home Care Assistance Program. Davis’ determination to help others, combined with her passion for diversity, equity, and inclusion, shaped her career trajectory. Davis earned a Master of Social Work from Simmons College and began taking on a caseload. She also volunteered for several opportunities, including the original MRC Diversity Committee, formed the agency's multicultural outreach program (ACCESS NOW Coalition), and hosted a national "Access Now Conference" to educate, employ and empower people from multicultural communities. “Data shows the people who are most impacted by disability actually are people of color, because of socio-economic factors and the intersection of lack of access to health care, poor mental health services, disability services, limited education, employment in low wage and sometimes dangerous jobs, to other mitigating factors which cognitive issues such as learning disabilities, or being on the autism spectrum," says Davis. "Those issues are compounded when you add the variables of race, ethnicity, language and culture." 

Familiar Faces

"The Roxbury office puts a public face for MRC in one of the most impoverished and underserved communities in Commonwealth," says Davis. "We are accessible in the neighborhood, and there are staff there to serve the community who speak different languages and understand cultural backgrounds." Renelien also describes the Roxbury Office as a "melting pot." 

"Our staffing reflects the people we serve. We serve many people who are newly immigrated to the country who speak Spanish or Haitian Creole, and we have people from that background on our staff. We take a lot of pride in the fact we are representative of the people that we serve," says Davis. Our service delivery outcomes are enhanced when our services are rendered in a manner which is culturally relevant and appropriate. 

One familiar face you can see in Roxbury Office is Head Clerk Linda Wiggins, who has welcomed individuals from the community for the past 45 years. "Once someone enters the door and they see our face, they get excited knowing there is someone who looks like them to explain what we do," says Wiggins.  

"The one job that I think that's doesn't get enough recognition that they deserve are the clerks in the agency," says Phillips. "They are really the ones the glue that keep the agency together. Linda is smart. She's committed. She has so much information, and I find myself tapping into her knowledge a lot. She's wise and a good listener."  

Davis calls Linda the office heartbeat. "Behind every good manager, there's a head clerk who's the one teaching them the ropes. I witnessed Linda orient and train at least nine Roxbury area directors. She's been the person with the historical memory. Linda trains and holds the collective memory of the office. Everything she does is with a smile, no pushback ever."  

"She's the person who will always crack a joke whenever things get tense to try to bring the temperature in the room down. When we're up against the wall, and we've got to come out swinging and come together as a team, she is the person that can always be counted on to anchor the team. She is the person that she is the cheerleader. She is the coach. She's the water girl. I mean, it's like she's she is the person who helps us to pull everything together," added Davis.  

The Roxbury Office has helped thousands of individuals from the minority community and put thousands to work. Phillips added, "I'm glad that that office is in the community and glad that the community can just drop in. Anyone from the area can drop in, ask a question, ask for service, and the staff there are top-notch and welcoming to anyone who walked through those doors." 

Media Contact for The Heartbeat of Roxbury

Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission 

The Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission (MRC) helps individuals with disabilities to live and work independently. MRC is responsible for Vocational Rehabilitation, Community Living, and Disability Determination for federal benefit programs.
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