health-care-robert-wood-johnson.jpgThe Robert Wood Johnson Foundation announced the 2008 recipients of its Community Health Leaders Award for individuals who overcome the odds to improve the health and quality of life for underserved communities across the United States. 

The CHL honorees represent the diversity of America, working in many geographical, ethnic, social and economic neighborhoods. From providing deaf patients better access to medical care with interpreters, to giving low-income children a fair start on their education with eye exams, to violence prevention programs for teens, the awardees have dedicated themselves to tackling some of the most intractable problems affecting the health of their communities. 

“The foundation is proud to recognize and honor these courageous individuals,” said Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, M.D., M.B.A., president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “These Community Health Leaders are truly unsung heroes who have stopped at nothing to help the people of their communities live healthier, better lives.”

This year’s winners join a distinguished and diverse group of 150 previous award recipients over the past 15 years.  Meet the 2008 Community Health Leaders:

  1. Early Vision Screening – Stephen Black, president and founder of Impact Alabama, Birmingham, Ala.

    Stephen Black, the grandson of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, was raised with a great sense of civic duty. So instead of pursuing a lucrative legal career in private practice after graduating from Yale Law School, he returned to his Alabama roots, believing he had an obligation and social responsibility to help the underserved in his community. In 2004, Black founded FocusFirst, where trained college students provide vision screenings to preschool children throughout Birmingham, specifically in low-income areas. Black believes poor vision has an impact on how well the children perform academically. Since the program’s launch, FocusFirst has provided free, technologically advanced vision screenings for more than 40,000 children in all 67 counties throughout the state, helping to ensure many of these children begin their education with appropriate vision care. 

  2. Deaf Patient Services – Anita Buel, director, Deaf Community Health Workers Project, Inner Grove Heights, Minn. As a deaf person, Anita Buel is well acquainted with the language, comprehension and communication barriers experienced by many in the same position when seeking medical care. Members of the deaf community are often excluded from the national health agenda and are rarely mentioned when talking about people for whom spoken English is a second language. After being diagnosed with advanced stage breast cancer as a young mother and not having adequate resources devoted to the deaf community for her disease, Buel became an advocate for deaf patients. Her leadership through the Deaf Community Health Workers program is responsible for training members of the deaf community to help deaf patients access medical services and understand medical issues in their language. Three years ago, a deaf person with a serious health care problem had no support at the doctor’s office. Today, thanks to Buel’s efforts, Deaf Community Health Workers’ services are now covered by Medical Assistance in Minnesota.
  3. Developmental Disability Rights – Deann Canuteson, president of the Full Life Corporation,Kealakekua, Hawaii. As a junior in high school, Deann Canuteson visited a residential care facility for people with developmental disabilities and was shocked at the way people lived. That visit so profoundly impacted Canuteson that she has dedicated her adult life to building a world where people with intellectual and physical disabilities have greater opportunities and can make their own decisions about every aspect of their lives. Through her work at Full Life Corporation on Hawaii’s “Big Island,” Canuteson’s unrelenting advocacy has brought access to much-needed services previously not available for residents of the state. For example, today, approximately 2,500 people with developmental disabilities on the island of Hawaii now have access to services provided through the Medicaid Waiver Program. 
  4. Youth Violence Intervention – Scott Charles, trauma outreach coordinator, Temple University Hospital, Philadelphia, Pa. Scott Charles leads the “Cradle to Grave” program, an intervention program he developed to prevent youth violence at one of Philadelphia’s busiest trauma centers. He takes the young people through a reenactment of the final day of a 16-year-old multiple gunshot victim—from the moment he arrives at the trauma center to when his body is taken to the morgue. The goal: to see the real-life impact of getting shot—not just the media images on TV and in movies. This program is a model for other trauma centers since it works to heal patients physically and spiritually. Charles also intervenes directly with gunshot patients while they are in the hospital since they have a one in seven chance of getting shot again. 
  5. Mental Health Services – Jonathan Delman, executive director, Consumer Quality Initiatives, Roxbury, Mass. Jonathan Delman has struggled with mental illness his entire adult life. Despite facing everyday stigmas surrounding his mental illness, Delman has chosen to help others like himself to improve their experiences. He founded Consumer Quality Initiatives, which partners with consumers and academics to conduct high-quality research on people’s experiences with mental health services. He then provides the results to policy-makers and service providers to help them improve services. His work has changed the way the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health cares for residents with mental health issues.
  6. Special Needs Children – Donene Feist, Family Voices of North Dakota, state director, Edgeley, N.D. Donene Feist’s commitment to children with special health care needs goes beyond the Family Voices of North Dakota and into numerous communities across the state. She consistently collaborates with families and professional partners to improve the health and health care of children with special health care needs. She has found services for thousands of children with a wide range of complex health needs in a state with few urban centers. She assists families in navigating public and private health systems and insurance plans, and helps them find accurate information and resources for their children.
  7. Foster Care in Inner Cities – Zaid Gayle, executive director, Peace4Kids, Compton, Calif. When Zaid Gayle was a teenager, he founded a youth group that promoted learning and self-expression. That experience launched Gayle into a lifetime of service. In 1998, he created Peace4Kids, a “community-as-family” safe haven for foster children in the violent Watts area of South Los Angeles. At Peace4Kids adult volunteers become a consistent presence in the children’s lives. During the past four years, the program has grown from having no budget to having $1 million annually with 10 full-time staff members and nearly 100 adult volunteers. Gayle also has been a key influence in foster care reform in California.
  8. Health Care For Utah – Judi Hilman, executive director, Utah Health Policy Project, Salt Lake City, Utah.   From low-income and disabled persons, to small business owners, Judi Hilman empowers those around her to use their voices to advocate for justice. Hilman, a passionate and gifted community organizer, co-founded the Utah Health Policy Project (UHPP) in 2006 to help obtain quality, affordable, comprehensive health care coverage for all Utah residents through research, policy advocacy and civic participation activities. Though UHPP is not designed to provide direct services, the agency receives multiple calls per month which are filtered through a safety net with the help of a resource guide that Hilman created. Today, UHPP helps hundreds of individuals each month learn about health policy issues and solutions, the policy-making process and how they can play a role.
  9. Environmental Health Issues in East Harlem – Ray Lopez, environmental program manager, Little Sisters of the Assumption (LSA) Family Health Service, Inc., New York, N.Y. Ray Lopez works with East Harlem residents to help combat environmental conditions affecting their health, including insect infestation, mold and poor air quality. He helps families control asthma triggers in their homes, reducing costly emergency room visits and school absences. He also developed solutions to the growing bedbug infestation in New York City, including wrapping duct tape around the edge of a cleaned mattress as a kind of sticky moat to prevent re-infestation. These approaches have directly helped hundreds of East Harlem residents resolve their own personal environmental health issues and created a ripple effect as they help relatives and neighbors. Under Lopez’s leadership, LSA has become widely recognized for its environmental interventions, receiving the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 2 Environmental Quality Award for its asthma program.
  10. Better Health for Taxi Drivers – Maria Ramos, network associate director, Generations+/Northwestern Manhattan Health Network, New York, N.Y. Five years ago, Maria Ramos saw a need for health services among New York City’s taxi and limousine drivers who frequently suffer from medical conditions as a result of their sedentary work and “on-the-go” eating habits. What began as an opportunity to bring health care to those living and working in Harlem and South Bronx communities, today provides health care services to drivers at 70 taxi bases across New York, where over 3,000 drivers and their families have access to care. Ramos and her outreach staff travel to area taxi bases daily, utilizing dispatch radios to announce the availability of services for that day. Most services are provided within an hour, which appeals to drivers, who average three customers within that time frame. Ramos’ success has led to other projects, including a collaborative with the taxi bases and the Department of Aging to increase awareness of available health care services programs to seniors.

For more information about the Community Health Leaders Award program, go to

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