Zane Gates experienced more challenges as a young boy than many people do in an entire lifetime. He grew up poor in a public housing project in Altoona, Pa., and suffered from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Yet his mother, who had also faced more than her fair share of difficulty by the time she gave birth to him at age 44, told him not to worry. Her words have stayed with him: "It's what makes you special, and some day you're going to help a lot of people."

His mother's years of hard work and guidance paid off. Gates grew up to complete pharmacy school, and then medical school, at the University of Pittsburgh. During his first semester in medical school, his mother died. "My mother was everything to me," Gates said. "I was lost. Looking back, I don't know how I made it through medical school."

After completing medical school and a residency in internal medicine, Gates ultimately returned home to Altoona. He opened his own free clinic in a van to provide care to the working poor—those who cannot afford to buy private coverage but earn too much to qualify for Medicaid. After partnering with Altoona Regional Health System, Gates' van-based clinic grew into Partnering for Health Services, which provides access to free health care to about 3,500 people a year in the Altoona area.

Years later, Gates founded the Gloria Gates Memorial Foundation in tribute to his mother. The Foundation provides mentoring and academic enrichment for more than 100 children in three Altoona housing projects, including the one where Gates grew up.

For his determination to provide compassionate health care to those most in need and his work throughout the Altoona community, Gates has been named one of 10 recipients of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Community Health Leaders Award. The award 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. Gates received the award during a ceremony in Baltimore, Md., on November 9.

Debra Beasom, the Partnering for Health Services patient who nominated him for the award, said Gates is able to encourage patients as well as civic leaders to strive to overcome challenges. "When a clinic patient is despondent, Dr. Gates dispenses hope, not just medicine," she said.