October 24, 2016
Focus: Outstanding women in business

Matilde Castiel: Tackling health outcomes through a ground-up approach

Since she was a kid, Matilde Castiel -- commissioner of health and human services for the city of Worcester -- has always felt a strong desire to improve the lives of others – especially those in underserved communities. Part of that came from her father, who she said was always going out of his way to help people. Part of it also came from growing up in Southern California after immigrating there from Cuba.

When she was six, Castiel and her older brother left Cuba as part of Operation Peter Pan – an under-the-radar mass exodus of Cuban children to the U.S. between 1960 and 1962. Once Castiel and her brother got to America, they spent a few months living in foster care until their parents were able to make the move themselves and establish a new American home in Los Angeles.

It wasn't easy coming into a new country and learning the language. Castiel's father sold household items from the back of his car in the Latino neighborhoods, and her mother got a job folding towels at a factory.

Changing people's lives

Castiel said that helped shape her interest in helping the underserved, because "we were underserved for a long time."

"I've always liked figuring out, 'How do you change people's lives for the better?'" she said.

In Worcester, Castiel has done just that. Since arriving 27 years ago, she has been instrumental in expanding health services – particularly in the Latin American community.

Castiel, who has worked as a doctor in the Worcester area since she got here, was the founder, executive director and medical director of the Latin American Health Alliance and is the founder and executive director of the Hector Reyes House, a 25-bed inpatient addiction treatment center for Latino men. In 2015, she opened Cafe Reyes, a breakfast and lunch restaurant that serves as a job training center for Hector Reyes residents and graduates.

In 2015, Castiel was appointed director of health and human services for the city of Worcester, where she works to improve the health of Worcester residents by focusing on the social determinants that influence health, like housing status, level of education and access to care.

Serving jobs through Cuban breakfast

Castiel first came to Worcester when her husband, an an obstetrics and gynecology doctor was recruited to work at the Fallon Clinic. When she moved here, she finished up her last year of medical residency at UMass Memorial Medical Center and then worked in the hospital's emergency room. After that, she worked at Family Health Center of Worcester for a decade and then as a physician at UMass Memorial.

In 2009, she was part of the group that opened the Hector Reyes House. It was created to address health disparities in the Latino community, which has been plagued with addiction issues since long before the opiate crisis, she said.

"The opioid epidemic has been going on for a number of years … but drug use has been going on for an eternity. It has mostly affected the African-American and Latino communities, and the treatment was incarceration," she said. "The difference of what's happening now is it's affecting the affluent community more. That's what made the lobbying and advocacy groups realize this is a disease, so why don't we treat it as a disease."

The Hector Reyes house provides men with the support they need to deal with and move beyond their substance abuse disorder. Graduates and residents can work at Cafe Reyes.

One Cafe Reyes-trained worker participated in Fork it Over, an annual cookie culinary competition by the Girl Scouts of Central and Western Massachusetts. It's usually a competition for local, professional chefs, and this man had no trouble fitting right in.

"His level of confidence was so high. She thought it was a great thing that we did, but I thought, 'You guys did us such a favor,'" said Melanie Bonsu, fund development manager for the Girl Scouts of Central and Western Massachusetts.

Creating the right environment

Bonsu said Castiel's hands-on leadership style is what sets her apart from others in her field.

"She is in it. She's not up there saying, 'You need to do this, you need to do that.' That's not her way. She gets in, and she's in it 100 percent," Bonsu said.

As the city's public health director, Castiel takes an all-encompassing approach to improving the lives of Worcester residents.

"As doctors, we saw people in clinics, and we would treat people for diseases. But we never went out into the community and saw how people live," she said. "We know now if people don't have adequate housing, and don't have adequate food, they're not healthy. If we can fix the environment where people live – that is health care."

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Read about the judges for this year's awards.

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