Transforming Health and Health Care in Vulnerable Communities

Each year, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Community Health Leaders Award honors America’s best―10 unsung heroes who have forged their own solutions to the shortcomings and challenges facing our nation’s health care system.

    • July 6, 2012

The Community Health Leaders (CHLs) do not wait for someone else to make their communities healthier places to live; they take matters into their own hands and accomplish what others may think is impossible. They apply creative, innovative approaches to many health issues right where they live. And they often overcome daunting personal obstacles in their quest to serve others.

CHLs are nurses, physicians, dentists, pharmacists, clergy, attorneys and judges, school officials, activists and advocates. The problems they tackle are varied and complex: promoting policies to improve and expand access to health services, providing HIV/AIDS education and breast cancer detection, helping low-income people control their children’s asthma, establishing accessible health centers and clinics, and much more.

“These leaders are pillars of their community and of the health care system, who have taken personal and professional risks to help the people in their communities live healthier, better lives,” said Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) President and Chief Executive Officer Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, MD, MBA.

Now in its 19th year, the Community Health Leaders Award honors the leaders’ extraordinary contributions with a $125,000 award, national visibility, and networking opportunities. RWJF has honored more than 190 outstanding Community Health Leaders from nearly all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.

The Foundation created the CHL Award to spotlight people who, despite their courageous efforts and remarkable results, are not nationally known. RWJF Vice President Terry Keenan, one of the most influential forces in the field of philanthropy, was the driving force behind the creation of the CHL Award in 1991. Speaking of the Community Health Leaders that year, Keenan said, “They’re the people who have been in the trenches, who do the work that makes a difference on a day-to-day basis. And they have some very important lessons to teach others about how to create social change.”

Roseanna Means, MD, is one of the many CHLs who exemplifies Keenan's vision. Means received the CHL Award in 2010 for providing free medical care to homeless women in the Boston area. She spends about 80 hours each week both providing care and coordinating thousands of health care visits made by volunteer colleagues through her organization, Women of Means. Nearly 11 years after starting the organization, Means and her colleagues have provided all levels of care, from serving a cup of coffee to accompanying a woman to the hospital for cancer surgery.

Means says that receiving the CHL Award has been the “pinnacle” of her career. One of the major rewards of being a Community Health Leader, she observes, is meeting and networking with other award recipients who share her passion and sense of social justice. “You’re in a room with people that have stepped off the boundaries of common sense and logic and did something because it needed to be done. They’ve all said, ‘This is not right... Someone has to do something about this, and that someone is going to be me’.”

Other Community Health Leaders, such as Charles Belting, DDS, are providing health care services and coverage to the uninsured and to those in isolated, rural areas of the country. A 1994 CHL awardee, Belting was the only dentist in over 8,000 square miles of rural Colorado at the time; he provided dental services to 12,000 poor and uninsured patients. His philosophy is that “If a family has driven 100 miles, I will take care of the whole carload before they go home.” Belting’s efforts led to dental coverage for the unemployed, a new training program for dental students at his clinic, and a draft state law to fund preventive dental care.

Many CHLs are working to empower underserved and vulnerable populations in their communities with new knowledge and tools. Yolette Bonnet, MBA, a 2006 leader, was honored for directing an HIV/AIDS program in a South Florida county with one of the highest HIV/AIDS and uninsured rates in the nation. Under her leadership, the Comprehensive AIDS Program of Palm Beach County has expanded its HIV prevention and education services. The program now reaches all communities of Palm Beach County and serves nearly 3,000 HIV/AIDS patients annually.

In 2008, Anita Buel, a deaf Minnesota community health worker, received the CHL Award. She was recognized for her leadership in expanding services to this community through the Deaf Community Health Worker Program, a network of trained and state-certified deaf men and women who help deaf residents throughout Minnesota overcome language, comprehension and cultural barriers that may prevent them from obtaining quality health care. To expedite the reduction of health care disparities in the deaf community, Buel’s program promotes the importance of health literacy and education, disease prevention, and medical follow-up directly to Minnesota’s deaf population through regular health care forums, seminars, and support group meetings—all in American Sign Language. “Interpreters are not the solution for ensuring deaf people’s comprehension of medical information,” Buel said. “This award will help us continue serving as a vital voice for the deaf community on this important issue, and continue working to improve our health and well-being.”

RWJF is proud to join forces with these local leaders who have taken brave and innovative steps to improve health right where they live. Through their determined, creative work across the nation, the Community Health Leaders demonstrate that no matter how great the challenge, one person can still make a difference.