Pennsylvania Office of Rural Health Presents 2008 State Rural Health Awards

July 31, 2008

A community-minded mother, a small town dentist, a dedicated healthcare administrator, a retiring U.S. Congressman, a statewide family fitness program and a local fire department are the 2008 recipients of the Pennsylvania Rural Health Award given out at the 2008 Pennsylvania Rural Health Conference. These awards are presented each year to select individuals and/or organizations that have significantly enhanced the health and well-being of rural Pennsylvanians. The 2008 awards were presented during a special ceremony -held on Thursday, June. Michael Huff, Deputy Secretary for Health Planning and Assessment in the Pennsylvania Department of Health, assisted with this year’s presentation.

Gary Sauers, administrative director for the Broad Top Area Medical Center (Huntingdon County), was named 2008 Community Rural Health Leader of the Year. A year ago, ongoing fiscal problems had this federally qualified health center with a patient population of nearly 7,000 on the brink of closing; however, thanks to Sauers’ dedicated leadership, that is no longer the case. Within six months of his arrival, Sauers implemented fiscal and operational procedures that reduced debt, brought all bills to “current” status and significantly improved patient and employee satisfaction scores. The number of new and recurring visitors to the center also increased during the past year – meaning that instead of closing its doors, Sauers’ work has allowed the center to provide much-needed healthcare services to an even greater percentage of this underserved community.

Melisa Engel, a self-described “mom on a mission” from Williamsport (Lycoming County), was one of the two recipients of this year’s Rural Health Hero of the Year award. Since learning ten years ago that her twin daughters had moderate to severe hearing loss, Engel has researched, lobbied for and launched a host of services designed to help her daughters and hundreds of other hearing-impaired Pennsylvania children. Engel is the founder of VOICES (Value Our Innocent Children’s Ears & Speech), a statewide organization that supports universal hearing screenings and services for children who are deaf or hard of hearing. She is also the contact for the state chapter of Hands & Voices, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting deaf/hard-of-hearing children, their families and the professionals who serve them; and a regional contact for Parent-to-Parent of Pennsylvania, which matches families with other families of children with special needs or disabilities. Engel has been appointed to several boards and task forces, including the Educational Resources for Children with Hearing Loss advisory board by Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell; the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency; the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Early Hearing Detection and Intervention ad hoc group; and several county organizations.

Dr. David Hajel, a dentist practicing in Somerset (Somerset County), also received the 2008 Rural Health Hero of the Year award. Hajel was honored for his work with the Somerset County Head Start, which requires all children enrolled in the program to have a dental exam. Previously, Somerset County Head Start experienced significant problems finding dentists who would work with the preschool-age children, accept the low-income families’ insurance and deal with the logistical issues of families making and/or keeping appointments. Enter Dr. Hajel, who has provided basic dental care to more than 400 children enrolled in the Head Start program over the past three years. He and his staff have offered summer dental screenings, provided screenings in the classroom and participated in events such as the Day for Celebrating Young Children. More importantly, Dr. Hajel has changed the perception that many children and their families had about the dentist – thanks to his calm and patient style, many parents who were concerned about taking their children to the dentist now have the confidence to do so.

The Family Fitness Program, an after-school program created by Penn State Cooperative Extension and currently offered in 22 Pennsylvania counties, received one of this year’s two Rural Health Program of the Year awards. Designed for children between the ages of eight and 12, the nine-week program helps children who are overweight or at risk of becoming overweight make healthier food choices and increase their physical activity. Parents of the children enrolled in the program attend five separate meetings (three with their child) so they can receive the information, skills and motivational guidance that leads to improved food choices, physical activity and family support for their children. Data collected from the first three years of this research-based program showed significant improvement in the children’s healthy eating behaviors (greater consumption of whole grains, fruits and vegetables; less consumption of high-fat, high-sugar foods and drinks); increased physical activity among children and families; improved communication and goal-setting among families regarding healthy eating; and more time planning and preparing meals together.

Early Warning for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, a program established by the City of Williamsport’s Bureau of Fire, in partnership with other Lycoming County fire departments, also received the Rural Health Program of the Year Award. This program was created to enhance the fire safety of homes of deaf and hard of hearing residents in Lycoming County by securing and installing wireless smoke detector systems that not only emit sounds but also send a signal to a receiver unit that sets off a strobe and a bed shaker. Funded solely by private donations, the program gained national attention in 2007 when the Safer Housing Foundation donated 100 strobe smoke detectors to the program. Articles about the program have appeared in various magazines for the deaf, and organizations across the country have contacted the Bureau of Fire to learn how the program can be replicated in other areas. The Pennsylvania Fire Commission is currently exploring the possibility of extending the program statewide and seeking funds to purchase and stockpile smoke detectors.

PORH also announced that retiring U.S. Rep. John Peterson (R-5th District) would be presented with a special Significant Contributions to Rural Health Care Award. For the past 30 years, Peterson has been one of the leading voices in the Pennsylvania General Assembly and the U.S. Congress on rural healthcare, economic development and education. He currently serves as co-chair of the Congressional Rural Caucus, a bipartisan coalition of more than 140 members of Congress committed to strengthening and revitalizing rural communities across America. Peterson will receive his award at a later date.


Editors: For additional information, please contact Terri Klinefelter, outreach coordinator for the Pennsylvania Office of Rural Health, at (814) 863-8214 or or the College of Health and Human Development Office of College Relations at (814) 865-3831 or