Community Leaders Honored for Creating Healthier Places to Live

    • October 17, 2012

SAN ANTONIO―The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is proud to announce today the recipients of its 2012 Community Health Leaders Award, honoring 10 individuals who have surmounted significant challenges to help improve health and health care in their communities.

“It’s amazing to see the difference that these 10 people have each made in their communities,” said Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, MD, president and chief executive officer of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “We at the Foundation are thrilled to honor these compassionate, committed, and innovative men and women who have fearlessly tackled daunting health and health care problems affecting people right where they live.”

The 2012 Community Health Leaders Award recipients are providing vital health services to residents in their own communities: refugees grappling with the after-effects of war, the uninsured working poor, children facing obesity, survivors of sexual violence, senior citizens who live in remote, rural areas, and overdose prevention efforts among substance abusers.

Now in its 19th year, the Community Health Leaders Award elevates the work of the leaders by raising awareness of their extraordinary contributions through national visibility, a $125,000 award, and networking opportunities. The 2012 awardees will be named today at a ceremony in San Antonio at the Hyatt Regency Hotel.

The 2012 Community Health Leaders are:

Kay Branch, MA, elder/rural health program coordinator, Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, Anchorage, Alaska.  Branch is known in Alaska as the go-to resource for assisting Alaska Native elders. She works to ensure that these elders can receive culturally sensitive care without traveling far from their communities. Along with an Anchorage tribal partner, Branch implemented an elder visiting outreach program that recruits students and volunteers to visit with elders in Anchorage nursing homes. She has led the completion of a statewide elder needs assessment, piloted a tribal long-term care service delivery plan, and provided advice for the successful development of an 18-person nursing home at the Maniilaq Health Center in Kotzebue. In addition, Branch has organized numerous projects to provide educational opportunities for Alaska Native students at the University of Alaska.

Fred Brason, CEO of Project Lazarus and Project Director of the Community Care Network Statewide Chronic Pain Initiative, Wilkes County, N.C.  As a hospice chaplain, Brason noticed that pain medications were being stolen from patients’ medicine cabinets. He started to ask questions and discovered that prescription drug abuse had become rampant. He worked for nearly two years to create Project Lazarus, a secular nonprofit that provides technical assistance to community groups and clinicians throughout North Carolina. Project Lazarus’ goal is to reduce prescription drug abuse and prevent overdoses while continuing to meet the needs of people living with chronic pain. Thanks to the work of Brason and Project Lazarus, overdose deaths are down 69 percent in Wilkes County—from 46.0 per 100,000 to 14.4 per 100,000.

Debbie Chatman Bryant, DNP, RN; assistant director for cancer prevention, control, and outreach, Hollings Cancer Center at the Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, S.C.  Bryant works to improve healthy behaviors and to lower cancer risk among those living in South Carolina’s Low Country region. As a nursing administrator, Bryant discovered that many low-income or uninsured patients were not receiving diagnosis or treatment until it was too late. To reach patients in need of cancer diagnosis and treatment, she expanded an outreach program using trained “lay navigators” to help residents overcome barriers to receiving the care they needed. The unique feature of this program is a voucher system that covers copayment costs. Following an abnormal screening, each client—regardless of ability to pay—is  immediately navigated to a financial counselor and receives a diagnostic test at the Hollings Health Center.

Beth Farmer, MSW, international counseling and community services program director, Pathways to Wellness Project, Lutheran Community Services Northwest, Seattle.  Farmer helped conceive and launch the Pathways to Wellness project while getting her graduate degree in social work. As a resettlement worker, she saw refugees—often from war-torn countries—grappling with trauma and depression and unable to receive the care they needed. Under Farmer’s leadership, Pathways created a screening tool and built a care delivery system to identify those with anxiety and depression and to connect them with the right services. In addition, Farmer mentors and trains students from refugee communities, supporting a new generation of social workers and therapists who can provide this help.

Amy Johnson, JD, executive director, Arkansas Access to Justice Commission, Little Rock, Ark.  As the first executive director of the Arkansas Access to Justice Commission, Johnson works to help low-income Arkansans overcome legal barriers that perpetuate poverty. Johnson has helped to raise more than $2.1 million to support the provision of free legal aid to low-income Arkansans. She also served on an advisory committee that oversaw development of the state’s first hospital-based medical-legal partnership. In addition, she helped to establish the Harmony Health Clinic, a free clinic for the working poor who do not qualify for Medicaid or Medicare and cannot afford health insurance.

Ifeanyi Anne Nwabukwu, RN, BSN, chief executive officer, African Women’s Cancer Awareness Association (AWCAA), Silver Spring, Md. Nwabukwu founded the African Women’s Cancer Awareness Association (AWCAA) to promote cancer awareness and treatment among African immigrants in the Washington, D.C., area. The subsequent death of her mother and best friend from breast cancer became the driving force behind her efforts to make early breast cancer screening available to immigrant women. Through AWCAA, Nwabukwu has reached more than 7,000 women, published educational materials in several languages, and helped more than 600 uninsured African immigrant women receive free screenings. The organization provides patient navigation services to cancer patients including transportation, financial, and household assistance.

Cristina Perez, MA, director of community outreach and counselor, Women Organized Against Rape, Philadelphia. Perez has identified a problem that people are often afraid to talk about. She travels throughout Philadelphia to provide assistance to victims of sexual violence in the city’s Latino communities. To date, she has served more than 3,000 Latino victims of sexual violence. Perez arms these women and their communities with knowledge about the health and legal services available to help them resolve issues related to sexual violence. She established the MUVYR (Mujeres Migrantes Unidas Con Voz Y Resilencia)—a coalition of women who have been victimized by rape and who volunteer to prevent sexual violence in their communities.

Marlom Portillo, executive director, Instituto de Educacion Popular del Sur de California (IDEPSCA), Los Angeles.  Portillo’s commitment to workers’ rights stems from his days as a student activist in his native Honduras. A low-wage worker when he first came to the United States, he experienced the unsafe work environments and lack of access to health care that many immigrant workers face. At IDEPSCA, Portillo founded  the Worker Health Project, which champions a holistic approach to occupational safety and health, encompassing the mental, physical, economic, and social factors that influence health. In the last eight years, the project has reached more than 12,000 people, providing opportunities for workers and their families to engage in community change.

Darleen Reveille, RN, senior public health nurse, Garfield, N.J. Working as a critical care nurse in hospital emergency rooms and operating rooms, Reveille witnessed the devastation caused by chronic disease, especially from heart attacks and strokes. She also knew that these problems were preventable. So she left the often-exhilarating challenges of emergency medicine to become a public health nurse and help families build healthier life styles. Working with a wide circle of community partners, Reveille spearheaded the F.U.N. (Fitness, Unity & Nutrition) Partnership, which has developed some creative approaches to reducing obesity. F.U.N.’s community gardens and summer camps promote physical activity and teach kids about nutrition through play, while also improving skills in math, science, and reading.

Kathi Toepel, director of senior services for the Mother Lode Office of Catholic Charities – Diocese of Stockton, Sonora, Calif. Toepel wants older adults to be able to live safely in their homes and communities as they age. As director of the Older Adult Outreach and Engagement Program, she works to make sure that seniors living in this rural, isolated area of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains have access to in-home counseling, socialization activities, and transportation to medical services. She also ensures that they have access to a 24-hour call-in line, the “Friendship Line,” operated by the Institute on Aging in San Francisco. Toepel is currently working with the University of California, San Francisco on a five-year research project that would treat depressed older adults living in rural areas using an evidence-based case management therapy.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation established the Community Health Leaders Award to recognize individuals who overcome daunting obstacles to improve health and health care in their communities. Today, there are more than 200 outstanding Community Health Leaders from nearly all states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia. For more information, visit

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About the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation 

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation focuses on the pressing health and health care issues facing our country. As the nation’s largest philanthropy devoted exclusively to health and health care, the Foundation works with a diverse group of organizations and individuals to identify solutions and achieve comprehensive, measurable, and timely change. For 40 years the Foundation has brought experience, commitment, and a rigorous, balanced approach to the problems that affect the health and health care of those it serves. When it comes to helping Americans lead healthier lives and get the care they need, the Foundation expects to make a difference in your lifetime. Follow the Foundation on Twitter ( or Facebook (