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Charity Bell: The Very Essence of Charity

Activist, advocate, caregiver, opera singer, Rappaport Fellow, and above all, survivor.

Activist, advocate, caregiver, opera singer, Rappaport Fellow, and above all, survivor.

Charity Bell is the very essence of charity.


She has been recognized as an ‘Everyday Hero’ by NBC’s Brian Williams, featured in Good Housekeeping, and celebrated in the Harvard Gazette. She is an activist, advocate, caregiver, opera singer, and above all, a survivor.


Her story is both inspiring and aspirational.


What started as a volunteer assignment in 1999, cuddling and caring for distressed infants, soon became a driving purpose for Charity. “I worked at a management consulting firm in downtown Boston and volunteered at the Tufts Floating Hospital for Children from 5:00 pm-10 pm. One night, I walked off the elevator and heard a little one screaming. The nurse said, ‘Thank God you’re here.’ I picked her up, and she immediately calmed down. They had to peel her off me when I left. I asked if she would be here tomorrow, and I came back the next night and the next night.”


Charity’s inexorable bond with the baby prompted her to explore becoming a foster parent. “I took the training, filled out the application, and while I couldn’t help her because someone else had fostered her, I began my life as a foster parent.”


To date, Charity has fostered over 150 children, primarily infants, most substance-exposed in utero. She fostered children while pursuing her master’s degree in public administration at Harvard Kennedy School and participating in the Rappaport Fellowship program.


Charity’s sense of compassion derives from her own experience as the child of a single mother struggling with mental health and addiction issues. Instability was the one constant in Charity’s life. Her mother’s frequent hospitalizations and extended stays resulted in several months of Charity living alone at 14. “I think it’s challenging for people who don’t grow up in chaos to understand what it’s like to grow up in chaos. Living alone would have been very traumatic had my life not been so messy from the time I was six. And for me, it was just a piece of what my life looked like.”


And it was during this time that a music teacher noticed Charity’s natural singing ability and her need for nurturing.


“I was an extremely strong singer, so I stood out. My teacher noticed that things were kind of rough for me. He and his wife took a great interest in me. He taught me how incredibly random life is, and to hope. My mother adored us but could not help us. Jamie and Linda taught me I could survive. I could get out of this, and things would be better. They told me, “you have to come to school; you have to finish high school. If you want a life better than your Mom’s, you know what you need to do.”


Jamie and Linda remain Charity’s closest family connections to this day. They are the only people in her life besides her sister (who moved out when she was 12) who knew Charity before she was 13.

Charity’s relationship with Jamie and Linda provided a lifeline, gave her a sense of security, and, most importantly, offered hope. “All a kid needs is for one person at school to really like them and for the kid to like them back. And they need one place at school where they shine.”


Charity’s natural talent and passion for music landed her a full scholarship to the New England Conservatory of Music. But Charity’s life in college was marked with uncertainty. She experienced homelessness during semester breaks and worked full-time while going to school. She had difficulty dreaming of her future and imagining life as an artist with her Mom’s mental health spiraling.


“To become an opera singer, you must have a safety net. I didn’t have one. I did some touring after college and auditioned for a few things but not a ton. It’s hard, because I was good. Again, options are limited for people who don’t have support. There’s homelessness when you need to move home with your parent. Then there’s homelessness when you have to move on to the streets. That’s a whole different ballgame.”


Charity landed a job at the Boston office of Ernst and Young, but quickly realized she may not be cut out for accounting. “I was working for Ernst and Young, the Accounting firm, and as we approached April 15, everyone began to lose their shit. And in my head, I thought this was just a made-up date. Like, we literally just invented this. Nothing bad happens if the taxes don’t go in on that date. When I announced that, the people around me realized I wasn’t cut out for the industry.”


It didn’t matter, because Charity had volunteered for the Peace Corps by then. “I submitted my application, and then I got a phone call that said, you are going to Guinea. It was 1998, the very beginning of the internet, and the person that called me said, ‘I’ll hold while you figure out where that is.’ I said to myself… this is what I’m doing.”


After spending three months learning French, and basic medical and survival skills, Charity was assigned to a remote village of 600 people in Guinea, West Africa. There was no running water, electricity, plumbing, or radio. After an exhausting three-day drive, Charity’s driver pulled up to her new home and announced, “If we don’t hear from you in three months, we’ll come and check on you.”


He got back in his car, leaving Charity crying on the stoop of her new home.


“I remember sobbing in the little building that was my home. And then you just figure out what your life is going to be. I spoke French, and very few people, if any, spoke French in my village. Three- and four-year-olds would come to my hut and teach me their language. I was like their pet. They would lead me around, teach me words, and when it was time for lunch and dinner, the toddlers would come and deposit me at a family’s fire for a meal and come back for me.”


Charity duties included educating the villagers about HIV and AIDS prevention and delivering newborns-a lot of newborns. Since Charity had no medical training, she relied on her vast knowledge of watching ER episodes. Without running water or electricity, delivering babies often meant catching babies. “I saw a lot of deaths. I was there for about 17 months, and I got very sick and ended up going home to be treated.”

"My advisor Susan Williamson said you need to apply for the Rappaport Fellowship. They would love you. I applied, sat back, and didn't have a lot of confidence that I would be accepted. It was trajectory-changing for me when I got it, and I was able to work for DCF."

Charity Bell, 2022 Rappaport Fellow

“I always say I am probably the only opera singer who left a ‘big six’ accounting firm to go live in a tiny village in West Africa.”

Upon returning to Boston, Charity began fostering babies and working full-time at the Cloud Foundation, where she soon had a revelation that changed her career trajectory. “I was fostering then and bringing these foster kids to the Foundation under my arm. I didn’t want to continue doing that on the micro level without doing something on the macro level. But I also knew I needed to understand the day-to-day operations to do something macro-level. So I applied to the Harvard Kennedy School… and I got in!

Getting accepted to HKS was bittersweet for Charity as her Mom had passed. “It was one of the most heartbreaking days of my life because I couldn’t tell my Mom. If my Mom ever knew that I got into Harvard, the people in heaven, or whatever you believe, would probably be like, we know Kathy, she got into Harvard, we’re all very excited for you!”

At HKS, Charity studied international security policy amidst an embracing and supportive student body. Charity took a full course load, worked full-time, and was a foster parent to HIV-positive or substance-exposed withdrawing newborns.

“The International Security Policy professors, who you would have thought would have been the least accepting of having a baby in the classroom, were the most accepting, and the professors in the Human Services classes were not happy about it at all. People like Ash Carter, our ex-secretary of defense, were accepting and unbelievably supportive. I remember standing up to leave once in his class when a baby was fussing. He said, ‘If the people in this room can’t concentrate with a baby fussing, then we’re all in trouble.’ And so many of my classmates were amazing. I could find a group of people and be like, here’s the baby. I’ll be back in an hour and a half. ”

While being a student at HKS was rewarding, it presented financial challenges for Charity.

“I was worried about funds and wanted an opportunity to see inside the Department of Children and Families. I had been a foster parent for years, yet I could not figure out what was going on inside.”

My advisor Susan Williamson said you need to apply for the Rappaport Fellowship. They would love you. I applied, sat back, and didn’t have a lot of confidence that I would be accepted. It was trajectory-changing for me when I got it, and I was able to work for DCF.”

My Fellowship taught me that DCF was a hard place to work if you want to make changes. I will always be fascinated by the fact that they didn’t try to hire me when I graduated. You would think that someone who’s been a foster parent for tens of years, won Foster Parent of the Year, and had stated her support over and over again for social workers and DCF would be someone they would want to have on board. Yet, there wasn’t a place for me, which was made very clear. That was hard.”

I will always be grateful to the Rappaport’s for giving me that summer. I got to look, listen, and figure out some very important things about working within organizations that I will never forget.

After graduating, Charity worked with the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children before becoming Director of Training for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston.

This new position gave Charity a unique opportunity to impact and influence staff members who work directly with children and provide training on trauma, suicide, anger management, and child development.

“I was there for five years before I moved to the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health in a director of training position. I am creating a training that will provide staff with a solid understanding of trauma, why people escalate, and tools for de-escalation. The goal of doing as few restraints in the in-patient environment as possible increases safety for staff and safety for patients. It presents an opportunity for transformation. If this program is fully adapted, it will be the foundation of how patients and staff experience the environment.

My goal is to create a job called the Director of Experience, to shift how people experience our Massachusetts Office of Health and Human Services, agencies like DCF, Transitional Assistance (DTA), and Dept. of Mental Health. I conducted a training for DTA, and I asked, ‘when a person in need comes to you on their first day at DTA, is it a good day for them? Is it their dream to be filing for public assistance?’

People are embarrassed, ashamed, snippy, and rude when they come to us. Too often, we see that behavior as just that rather than looking underneath at the anxiety, the shame, and all the conditions that drive it.

Recognizing that people come to us with perceptions and stresses that have nothing to do with us, yet deeply impact every interaction they have with us, is the key to much of my work. Meeting people in the middle- at work, home, and in the community. That is the key to forward momentum.

I can’t think of a time in history when it was more important.”