‘I left it all on the field’: longtime head of Boston’s ABCD to retire this month

BOSTON — It’s one of the largest anti-poverty agencies in the country. It was also one of the first.

ABCD (Action for Boston Community Development) of Boston serves more than 100,000 people a year. And John Drew, who’s been a part of it for more than 50 years, is ready to retire.

Boston 25 News anchor Kerry Kavanaugh recently sat down with ABCD’s outgoing president and CEO about his decades of dedication to empowering the less fortunate.

John Drew was born in Charlestown and grew up in public housing. His own children were in Head Start programs.

“Is that why you’re so passionate about advocating for the less fortunate?” Kavanaugh asked Drew.

“There’s got to be a connection,” Drew said.

That connection led to a more than five decades of work that empowers others.

Drew graduated with his high school diploma and took up a trade. But an injury set him back. He could no longer do the physical work he was doing. He said he didn’t know how he’d get his family out of that financial crisis. But because people took chances on him along the way, Drew says, he went to college, got a degree as a CPA and eventually a job with ABCD, which in the late 1960s was just a start-up.

“There’s brand new programs. It’s called the ‘war on poverty’, OEO (Office of Economic Opportunity), Lyndon Johnson,” Drew said. “And the whole idea of that was to take money and create opportunities for participation directly into the neighborhoods and the rural areas where people were low income.”

Drew says since it was new, there was no “infrastructure” for all the federal funding, and that’s where ABCD came in.

“Money never got there before. It always went this way and that way, but it never got directly to the people, where they could make decisions themselves,” he said.

Drew says ABCD helped kick off the movement toward establishing community health centers. ABCD played a key role in the birth of the first community health center, Geiger-Gibson Community Health Center in South Boston. It also helped implement WIC, or Women, Infants and Children Nutrition Program, Head Start and utility assistance. Programs still thriving today, now across the country.

“What do you love about this work?” Kavanaugh asked.

“I love to love the people,” Drew said. “It’s not a gratitude thing. It’s like working with family. All our neighbors.”

But it’s work full of challenges that Drew says ABCD has met head on, regardless of political climate or financial struggles.

Now 85, Drew, himself was driven to give people and families what they needed to succeed, the way someone helped him decades ago.

“I left it all on the field. There’s more. But I left an awful lot of me on the field. And if people appreciate me, that’s great,” Drew said.

Sharon Scott-Chandler, currently ABCD executive vice president and COO, will take the reins upon Drew’s retirement at the end of June.

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