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Dr. Gabriel Rincón named RWJF community leader

January 16, 2012

By Stacie Crozier, ADA News staff

New York—Dr. Gabriel Rincón, a Brooklyn dentist who knows firsthand how tough it can be for Hispanic immigrants to adjust to life in the United States, has been honored as a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Community Health Leader for his tireless work as an advocate for health, education and social issues affecting New York Latinos.


Honored: Dr. Gabriel Rincón, center, accepts his RWJF Community Health Leader Award from RWJF Community Health Leaders National Program Director Janice Ford Griffin, left, and RWJF President and CEO Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, M.D. Photo courtesy Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Community Health Leaders

In 1974, Dr. Rincón emigrated from Mexico to the U.S. looking for a better life. Then 17 years old, he worked as a dishwasher, but got deported back to Mexico. Aspiring to a professional career, he worked construction and factory jobs while attending dental school in Mexico. After graduating from dental school he spent two years doing social service work in Nicaragua.

"I worked with cane cutters, teaching prevention in oral and general health," Dr. Rincón said. "But I had diabetes and my health started to deteriorate, so I went back to Mexico. But I still had a desire to come to the U.S."

He was accepted at New York University College of Dentistry and finished dental school in 1992. Then he completed a fellowship in oral and maxillofacial surgery.

During his fellowship—at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic—he cared for patients in the final stages of AIDS. He realized that New York City's Mexican American community had language and cultural barriers about discussing and learning how to prevent becoming infected with HIV/AIDS.

"I saw people in my community getting infected, yet there was nothing in Spanish about the disease or how to prevent it," said Dr. Rincón. "They didn't know how it was happening."

So he developed a slideshow to educate Hispanics about HIV signs and symptoms, how the disease is spread, how it can lead to death and how to prevent it.

"I started making my presentation in the community, first with friends, then for sports leagues and churches. I went all over. I went where there was anyone who would listen. I even did interviews on radio and television," Dr. Rincón said.

As a licensed dentist working in New York, Dr. Rincón realized that the HIV/AIDS campaign could use funding support, but he needed to establish a nonprofit organization to continue the project. In 2000, he established Mixteca Organization Inc., a nonprofit organization that now provides health and education programs to thousands of Hispanic New Yorkers every year.

Mixteca works with local businesses to distribute thousands of HIV prevention kits, prevention and testing information; offers rapid HIV testing and confidential counseling services; hosts regular HIV talks by a community health promoter; and participates in the AIDS Walk New York to help raise funds for outreach and prevention programs.

"I'm a believer in doing things," said Dr. Rincón. "I don't like to complain. If something's wrong you need to fix it."

Mixteca's work in health advocacy branches beyond HIV/AIDS prevention and counseling. The organization holds four health fairs each year, offering glucose and cholesterol screenings, blood pressure monitoring and urinalysis tests; educational materials; and medical referrals to low-cost clinics. The organization has also begun to address domestic violence issues in the Hispanic community.

Mixteca also offers a variety of educational programs, including English classes, literacy programs and basic computer skills classes for adults. For younger students, the organization has after school tutoring, Mexican history classes and a program to help high school students explore college options.

"We work with high school kids to introduce the concept of attending college and we give them help with applications and college visits," said Dr. Rincón. "For younger children, our after school program serves 35 kids. They get homework help and even cooking classes.


Community outreach: Dr. Rincón performs a glucose and cholesterol screening at the Spring Community Health Fair at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Brooklyn, N.Y. Photo courtesy Mixteca Organization

"It's been 11 years since the organization was founded. I still practice dentistry, but the organization's work takes a lot of my time and commitment," he added. "I am happy and proud to see we accomplished our goal and mission 'to empower the Mexican and Latin-American immigrants of the New York area by providing access to services that enhance immigrants' quality of life and will allow them to reach sustainable social and economic development.' "

"By offering help like English and computer classes and the other services we offer, our clients can have a better life, better jobs, better pay and an easier time helping their children," said Dr. Rincón. "We also show people how to navigate the system to get the health care services that they need. That's a lot to accomplish. Between health education and referrals we have helped 21,000 people."

Larry McReynolds, executive director of the Lutheran Family Health Centers in Brooklyn, said that Dr. Rincón's dedication has resulted in measurable improvement in community health, especially in Brooklyn's Sunset Park neighborhood, where Mixteca is based.

"Gabriel Rincón's passion for improving health outcomes for the immigrant population of Sunset Park is a tribute to his dedication and leadership at Mixteca," said Mr. McReynolds "In 2009 alone, Mixteca provided four community health fairs, 20 community health workshops, 305 referrals to free or affordable health care, 332 HIV rapid tests and 4,000 health screenings. None of that would have been possible without Gabriel Rincón."

Dr. Rincón was honored and touched to be nominated for the prestigious RWJF Community Health Leader Award. He is only the sixth dentist to receive the award since the RWJF established it in 1993. He received his award at a ceremony Nov. 9, 2011, in Baltimore.

"It changed my life the moment they came for the site visit," he said. "It was one of the best days of my life. There were 437 nominations this year. Listening to people give testimony about how our organization helped them was very gratifying. I'm fortunate to receive this award. I'm grateful to life and to God and being a Community Health Leader will lead me to be even more effective in the community."

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has honored more than 190 Community Health Leaders since 1993. The Community Health Leaders Award each year honors 10 individuals who have overcome daunting odds to
improve the health and quality of life for those living in disadvantaged communities across the United States, according to the RWJF website.

Leaders each receive $125,000 to support their ongoing work, as well as opportunities to network and collaborate with other leaders from around the country.

For more information on all of the winners or the Community Health Leaders program, visit www.communityhealthleaders.org.

For more information on Dr. Rincón's work with the Mixteca Organization, visit http://mixteca.org.