The Tennessee Public Health Association recognized the 2019 Visionary Award recipients at the Middle, East and West Tennessee Grand Division Meetings held on April 26, May 3 and May 17, respectively.  Award recipients were chosen among many exemplary candidates, all of whom dedicate their time, talents, and efforts to create a healthier community in which Tennesseans can live, work, and play.   We thank the nominees for their tireless efforts on behalf of public health and applaud this year’s award recipients.

Middle Tennessee Visionary Award Recipient: Michele Pardue, DDS

While practicing dentistry at the Lentz Dental Clinic for the Metropolitan Nashville Public Health Department (MPHD), Dr. Michele Pardue was disheartened and deeply concerned about the number of children under age five needing referrals for extensive dental treatment. This led her to create the WIC Dental Program, a collaborative initiative that integrates a full time registered dental hygienist into MPHD’s WIC program, a federally funded program designed to provide supplemental food assistance and nutrition education to low-income pregnant, postpartum, and breastfeeding women, infants, and children until age five. The hygienist provides dental screenings, fluoride varnish, Silver Diamine Fluoride applications, and oral health education to children during their WIC appointment.

The WIC Dental Program has been successful in reducing the prevalence and/or severity of dental caries by increasing access to preventive dental services for children under age five and increasing parental awareness and education to reduce behaviors that contribute to early childhood caries.  The Shelby County Health Department has established its own WIC/Dental Collaboration and others are sure to follow as improved outcomes become widely known.

East Tennessee Visionary Award Recipient: Save the Children

Save the Children began in 2008 in Cocke County.  Initially offered in two schools, the program sought to improve literacy levels of individual students.  As resources became available, the program grew to serve an entire school and eventually expanded to 8 of the 9 county elementary schools located in under-served areas of the county participating today.  Its literacy curriculum has expanded as well and now addresses health education and social and psychological health. Additional program features include after-school programs, educational assistance, and summer programs including meals for students; and local partnerships are leveraged to provide events, resources and referrals, and access to free books for the entire community.  The program has started to address ACES that come from parents not interacting with their infants by providing Early Steps and VROOM, programs designed to develop neural pathways.

The program is positively impacting public health in Cocke County in far reaching ways.  By teaching parents about the importance of reading and interacting with their young children to improve literacy levels, they are setting them on course for academic success and a lifetime of health and financial security.

West Tennessee Visionary Award Recipient: Memphis Inner City Rugby

Started by teachers and driven by coaches, Memphis Inner City Rugby exists to leverage the power of sport for social change. This upstream intervention is decreasing health disparities by changing the circumstances in which people live and work.

Any effort to cause change takes grit, determination, and sacrifice. For dreamers who follow their hearts to initiate change, the struggles are real and the rewards are often intangible.   Memphis Inner City Rugby (MICR) began with a dream shared by co-founders, Shane Young and Devin O’Brien.  As committed educators, Young and O’Brien saw good kids getting mixed up in bad stuff simply because they were left without opportunities, supervision or structure in neighborhoods fraught with gangs, drugs and violence. Their dream started with the premise that every kid can succeed if given the right opportunity.  Consequently, they designed an athlete program that gives youth an opportunity to develop a skill, holds them accountable, and recognizes them for their contribution to something greater than themselves.  As student athletes began using the lessons learned on the rugby field to dramatically improve other areas of their lives such as academics and behavior, others took notice and MICR grew from one team in 2012 to ten teams in 2019.

The program’s impact clearly transcends the playing field.  Over the past eight years, MICR has built lasting bridges between historically divided parts of the city of Memphis and seen nearly 120% growth in racial and socio-economic diversity among its student athletes. to date, student athletes have collectively achieved a 100% college acceptance rates and earned over $4.5 million in scholarships. Best of all, graduate student athletes are returning to their communities as leaders and initiators of change. The future looks bright for MICR as participation remains robust and the program is replicated in cities like New York, Chicago, and Dallas.