As a New York City attorney, Josephine Mercado, J.D., saw a disturbing trend: Many of her colleagues were developing breast cancer. She rallied a small group of women to distribute information about mammograms and breast self-exams throughout the city’s courthouses. Despite having the highest risk of dying from the disease, Black and Hispanic women tended not to pick up the materials. Mercado then took action, recruiting 300 volunteers to educate women about breast cancer with linguistically correct and culturally sensitive health messages.

After leaving New York in 1999 for a quiet retirement in Casselberry, Fla., outside of Orlando, she saw an even greater need for health information, especially among Latinos, who make up the largest group without health insurance in the United States.

When she tried to assess the health status of Latinas in her new neighborhood, Mercado found that no data were available; Latinas were categorized with either White women or non-White women, making it impossible to evaluate their health needs. So Mercado started Hispanic Health Initiatives, Inc., the only Hispanic-operated, volunteer-driven, community-based health organization in Central Florida. She brought a new approach to health education in the community—promotoras—who are community volunteers who share health information with others.

For her efforts to educate medically disadvantaged communities about health, wellness and disease prevention, Mercado has been named one of 10 recipients of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Community Health Leaders Award, which honors exceptional men and women who have overcome significant obstacles to tackle some of the most challenging health and health care problems facing their communities.

As founder and executive director of Hispanic Health Initiatives, Mercado regularly organizes diabetes screenings, educates the community about healthy diets and exercise, and tackles issues from breast cancer to teenage pregnancy prevention. Collectively, the Hispanic Health Initiatives (HHI) programs have touched the lives of 500,000 Central Florida residents.

Mercado’s focus is on educating the promotoras so that they can educate the community. “Only about three percent of our national health system budget is spent on education and prevention,” Mercado said. “We need a new approach and, for our community, this is working.”

Wanda J. Pearson, M.A., who consults with HHI as a grant writer and evaluator, said Mercado’s “achievements are a testament to what can be accomplished when a determined spirit is not dissuaded by opinions that what one seeks to accomplish can’t be done. Relying entirely on donated medical services and a cadre of volunteers, she has shared her vision in the form of health forums, community advocacy, original screenplays, and board games to reach over 2,000 adults annually with life-saving health information and services.”