Book by Wesleyan author details Community Health Center founding

MIDDLETOWN — A new book chronicles the efforts of a 20-year-old city man, with no college degree but plenty of ambition, who founded the Community Health Center, eventually expanding its footprint beyond Connecticut to all 50 states.

Masselli, also president, is a member of the hippie generation who, with his peers, were intent on bringing the free clinic movement to the city.

The primary care agency marked its 50th year of service May 1. It has come very far from its beginnings in a small, two-room medical and dental clinic located in a former apartment at 115 College St.

The 164-page book details the engrossing history of the clinic, from its humble beginnings as Masselli’s dream to one of the “most innovative health centers in the country,” according to author Charles Barber, a Wesleyan University associate professor in the College of Letters. and a lecturer of psychiatry for the Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven.

For the first decade of the Community Health Center’s establishment, the author said, “it was absolutely touch and go.”

The book is replete with old photographs, newspaper articles, documents and daily notes from Masselli, who, at the time, had no credentials to do administrative or clinical work, the author wrote.

However, Masselli told The Press, “what 20-year-old doesn’t want to conquer the world?”

The main office now is located at 635 Main St., with a Knowledge and Technology Center around the corner at 19 Grand St.

Fifty years ago, Masselli joined a group of Wesleyan students who created a drop-in center called TOUCH Inc. to provide support for young runaways, drug counseling, draft counseling and 24/7 crisis line, according to Barber. It was located in a donated space in a Middletown Epicopal church, and later an old “ramshackle” store, Carrie Plumbing & Heating Co. at 635 Main St.

Massell’s efforts, including camping out at Carrie’s for three cold days in October, were “out of desperation,” he told The Press.

The North End was perfect for a “rebooted version of CHC,” according to the book. “It was in the ‘undesirable’ and more impoverished part of town … away from the crosshairs of the medical establishment.”

The founder had set his sights upon securing the building, which he believed wasn’t being used regularly. When he consulted the building’s owner, he was told the tenant owed back rent, so he was more than agreeable for the young man to get the keys, if he could, since the tenant had changed the locks.

“I went there every day: 9 o’clock in the morning, 12 o’clock, 5 o’clock. I noticed some of the supplies moved, but I’d been here all the time; ‘It’s not possible,'” he thought. The plan worked.

The CEO said his time as one of the CHC’s five co-founders was “exhilarating”: community activist Reba Moses, noted jazz musician James Moody, Gerry Weitzmann, a pharmacist who eventually owned Pelton’s Drug Store, and (now Colorado US Sen.) John Hickenlooper.

“We were part of an early group of change-makers,” Masselli said. “We realized early on we had to be exceptional. There’s a higher standard for those bringing change about and then executing it. … Young people are inherently committed to making their communities better. I don’t think it was unique to us. That’s axiomatic, but so often there isn’t the opportunity to do this work.”

Hickenlooper, roommates with Masselli at the time, earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees in geology at Wesleyan. “That’s not necessarily a natural affinity for being a community organizer, but he was taken by the proposition that we could build something unique, and we could do it on our own,” the CEO explained.

The CHC renovated the first floor of the run-down heating company building, however, just months later, operations were shut down when the tenants above flooded the entire place three times in 15 months, Masselli explained. All of the founders’ money, which was not much, had been put into the facility, he added.

The only solution was to buy the building, but Masselli and his partner had run out of funds. The now-senator had a modest trust fund for his education, and was willing to draw from that to keep the operation afloat, Masselli said.

“We were all passionate about it because that was something we were doing full-time,” he added. “Yet, here was somebody who thought the proposition of trying to help your neighbor was something we all had responsibility in doing.”

That move was “foundational” for the health center’s success,” Masselli said. “It needed some financial support and Hick was there at the right moment.”

The now-senator later moved to Colorado, Masselli said, purchased the Wynkoop Brewing Co. and eventually helped transform the LODO neighborhood in Denver. He served two terms: as mayor as well as governor of the state. “He’s a big supporter to this day,” Masselli said.

Part of the CHC’s portfolio now includes the National Institute for Medical Assistant Advancement in Denver, as well as locations in California.

“So many people helped us along that journey to make health care affordable for people locked out,” Masselli said. That sentiment is reflected in the health center’s motto: “health care is a right, not a privilege.”

Barber has many connections to Middletown and Wesleyan as a native who grew up on Pine Street. His father, like Masselli’s (a chemist at the university), was a professor. Both also graduated from Xavier High School.

Masselli approached Barber about two years ago with the idea for a book. “I had no idea what I was in for,” he said of the labor-intensive history of the CHC.

The health center ran into opposition in the early years, Barber said. “Starting in 1972 — and over the next five decades — Mark would constantly run up against the rigid mores of the ‘Land of Steady Habit,’” and often he would be rebuffed, he wrote in the book.

The state Department of Public Health inspected the renovated facility in the early 1970s, Barber wrote, and found the hallway was an inch too narrow to meet building codes, and ordered a cease and desist.

“We set up the operation, we got the free clinic going, and we had that proverbial knock at the door by the state of Connecticut asking us if we had a license. My response was, ‘do we really need one?’” Masselli said, laughing at the thought. “The reality is, we did, and we were shut down.”

Later, Barber wrote, Masselli discovered the “true reason” for the shutdown was 30 members of the then-Middlesex Memorial Hospital medical staff wrote a letter saying they were concerned by the standards of care. In July 1973, Masselli spoke to the local board of health, whose members “were not sympathetic, and some were antagonistic.”

The board eventually sided with the center.

In January 2021, the health center made headlines after launching a number of COVID testing centers, including several vaccination sites across the state, as well as a large drive-thru COVID vaccine location during a high-demand period.

It established vaccination sites near Wesleyan University in Middletown, another in Stamford, and one at Rentschler Field in East Hartford. The site opened during the “early, nightmarish days of COVID, when its mode of transmission was not understood,” the book notes. The wide-open field is described as “dismal — a dusty, forgotten no-man’s land” between the factory and football stadium. The health center got it up and running in five days.

More than 20 fixed testing sites and dozens of mobile locations conducted more than 600,000 COVID tests seven days a week for more than a year, Barber wrote. Because of the efforts, Middlesex County was 17th in the nation most vaccinated, Barber said.

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