08:59 AM

How Dental Care Helps Create a ‘True Community’ For This South Bronx Neighborhood

Tee Lawton focuses on fun and convenience when introducing his community to oral health services and education, bringing Preventistry® to life by meeting people where they are.

Tee Lawton and Mount Hope Housing Company Staff

Tee Lawton has helped New York’s South Bronx neighborhood for decades as a public servant. As Director of Community Relations at the Mount Hope Housing Company, he meets with community boards and government officials and oversees community outreach to fulfill the organization’s mission “to sustain affordable housing.” 

But Lawton knows it takes more than just physical housing to build a true community. Social determinants of health are made more obvious in such a large low-income housing complex, and Lawton is creating opportunities for people without the means or the knowledge to access the health system at all. That’s why he strives to ensure Mount Hope has the social services it needs: ESL and GED classes, back-to-school fundraisers, and health services and education. 

Thanks to Lawton, Mount Hope is in its second year partnering with DentaQuest to provide members of the community with the oral health screenings it needs, a big step toward opening new doors to better health overall. 

How do health and dental care fit into your plan to support residents of Mount Hope Housing? 

We’re trying to keep our community healthy, but we have a high rate of obesity, diabetes problems are sky-high and there’s high blood pressure. I myself recently lost 83 pounds — I’ve never gotten so many compliments! — but it took me time to break bad habits. People don’t know they’re borderline diabetic in our community. So we’ve partnered with companies to provide dental and health care services. We host health fairs so people can get screenings — for diabetes, for dental health — along with having fun. This past summer was our sixth year closing down a whole block for a fair. We had ponies, a petting zoo, music, book bags that we gave out to kids going back to school — and we did health screenings. You can reach a lot of people when you partner with groups like DentaQuest. I always tell the nurses and volunteers, “Bring a lot of business cards when you come, because they’re going to ask you for one!” These screenings are easier for people who otherwise don’t go to a doctor until something drastic happens. Sometimes [that’s] too late.

What do you hope residents will take away from your health fairs?

We’re hoping kids will leave our fairs and toy drives and talk to their parents and share what they’ve learned. We’re trying to get parents more involved. It’s important for them to make sure kids have proper checkups. 

Most families in our community have Medicaid or Medicare or [other] public assistance, so they can go to health centers and other nearby centers like The Institute for Family Health. Unfortunately it’s underutilized in this community — they just don’t know to get themselves checked out, and that can have a tragic effect.

What drives you to help the South Bronx communities you serve?

I’ve been with Mount Hope for 23 years, and I love it. I love what they do for the community — that’s why I’ve stayed. [For me,] it’s not about the money — it’s about doing something for the community you feel good about. You can go home at night and sleep good and feel good about what you’re doing. And you can’t wait to get to work the next day to do your job. I’ve been blessed. This is my dream job.

This South Bronx experience is not unique. Check out this study that shows most adults recognize the importance of oral health to overall health, but find the oral health system difficult to access. That's why the work of Preventists across the country is so important. Read more stories about Preventists changing their communities and learn more about the future of oral health at Preventistry.org.