For the last seven years, Mary Ann Kozlowski, DentaQuest’s head of Corporate Giving and Partnerships, has spent much of her time identifying and lifting up “Health Equity Heroes” — individuals across the country who are dedicated to improving the oral health of all by reducing disparities and increasing access in innovative new ways.
Since its inception in 2015, DentaQuest’s Health Equity Heroes program has recognized 67 heroes across 23 states and contributed more than $225,000 to local community organizations.
“The whole idea was to talk about DentaQuest as an organization that respects pioneering individuals doing frontline work to address disparities common in many communities,” said Mary Ann.
As we celebrate another group of Health Equity Heroes this July, we talked to Mary Ann to learn more about the history of the program and what makes someone a DentaQuest Health Equity Hero. Here’s what she had to say:
What’s the story behind Health Equity Heroes and how it came to fruition?
The idea initially came up in a brainstorm session back in 2015 about how to build out DentaQuest’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts while also building better relationships with people doing great work in the communities we serve. We honored five people that first year, who were nominated by team members and partners. The program has grown from a grassroots effort to a nationally celebrated day of recognition. Those first few years, each Hero received $1,000. In 2019, we really broadened our outreach and received more than 30 nominations. During COVID, we used an online nomination form and promoted the award digitally, which really helped build more awareness We also knew everyone was hurting so desperately that year, so we increased the award to $5,000. Last year we designated July 13 as Health Equity Hero Day to honor the nominees and all Heroes in our every day. This year, we had almost 50 nominees. I’m so thrilled with how people have responded.
What makes someone a Health Equity Hero and how are they chosen?
To me, a Health Equity Hero is a pioneer — someone willing to put themselves on the front lines and work for what they really believe in. We look for a variety of people. Not everyone has to be a dentist. I think it’s also interesting that the Hero selections are made by a diverse group across DentaQuest. We have a committee represented by customer service, government relations, business development, clinical work, communications, community outreach … all of those voices are part of the selection committee and each brings a unique perspective to the conversation and process.
Who are some of the Heroes and what are some of the stories that have stood out to you?
There have been so many incredible stories and people over the years!
Judy Haber, a 2017 Hero, was a nurse at NYU who took the reins to make oral health a component of nursing triage. Before that, if a nurse evaluated you they might not look in your mouth, but she pioneered incorporating a look in the mouth as part of ER training — inserting oral into the standard ER examination of head, ears, eyes, nose and throat. Now nurses check before the throat. Her work with have incalculable impact for years to come.
There's also work that is going on outside of dentistry. George Mendoza, for example, a 2018 Hero and then Superintendent of La Grande School District in Oregon, embraced making oral health literacy a core component of the district’s health program.
And of course, in 2020, there were countless incredible stories of people stepping up in new and innovative ways during COVID to make sure those who are most vulnerable had access to care. From Dr. Rikita Chandra spearheading a teledentistry program to keep patients out of the ED, to Dr. Tim Garvey of the University of Florida College of Dentistry, who focused on access to dental care for individuals with disabilities and special health care needs — an underserved population that has had unique challenges during the pandemic.
What is the most gratifying part of working on this program and seeing it grow?
I just love learning about all these people — to hear their stories and be able to tell their stories. They don’t cross our paths that often, yet are doing really huge, important work. A lot of these organizations and individuals we never would have known about if it wasn’t for Health Equity Heroes and many have become resources for us. Marcia Beatty of the Oklahoma Oral Health Coalition, for example, has helped us make contributions to Native communities in Oklahoma. It has really helped DentaQuest expand our pool of friends and advocates across the country. As a company whose mission is to improve the health of all, and I do believe in that, this program really reinforces our mission and vision.
To learn more about DentaQuest’s Health Equity Heroes and the 2022 winners, announced on July 13, click here.
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