Through the Building Brighter Futures With Youth campaign, designed to foster career paths for youths, the hospital since 2005 has provided 400 lower-income young people with jobs and many more with skills and pre-employment training opportunities. O'Brien also played a key role in establishing the city's Youth Opportunities Office, to which UMass has donated $100,000 annually, and which has provided summer employment to more than 7,000 young people total since 2008.
“I ran many focus groups with young people, and the No. 1 thing they were telling us is, 'There's nothing to do in the summer,' ” O'Brien says. “We're hanging out on street corners. You could really make a difference by giving us job opportunities.”
Some of those youths have since reached adulthood and are working for UMass as nurses, radiology technicians and in other roles. “People come up to me and say, 'Mr. O'Brien, thanks, I was in Building Brighter Futures With Youth.' ”
UMass has taken on other community projects, developing more than 20 homes in its immediate neighborhood, taking leadership in seeding still-empty lots with community gardens, and working with the school system to provide healthier foods and educate young people about nutrition.
That will pay off for the health system, O'Brien says, from housing for moderate-income employees such as housekeepers, to less uncompensated care down the road because young people are living healthier lifestyles in the first place. “Whatever we do in this community comes back to pay off in spades,” he says. “People start noticing the changes, and it's motivational.”
Cheryl Lapriore, chief of staff at UMass, says O'Brien, who announced his retirement effective January 2013, takes a very hands-on role in these efforts. For example, he serves as co-chair of Common Pathways, a coalition of more than 60 entities that's working to address health disparities and other quality-of-life issues. “He aggregates others around him,” she says. “We may start things at UMass Memorial, but he's a strong proponent of building relationships and partnerships so (community efforts are) sustainable.”