Miles of Smiles, public defender among social justice award winners

More than 37,000 patient visits, 22,000 filings, and 21,000 sealants have reduced dental disease for young Miles of Smiles patients.

The city of Holland recognized the Ottawa County Department of Public Health program at its Human Relations Commission 2022 Social Justice Awards this month.

Miles of Smiles received the health services award. The Miles of Smiles mobile dental unit run by the Ottawa County Department of Public Health provides on-site preventive and restorative dental services for financially qualifying, uninsured, and Medicaid insured Ottawa County residents. Services are provided at schools, migrant camps, Head Start Centers, and Ottawa County Department of Public Health clinics via a 40-foot mobile unit equipped with a waiting area, laboratory, two operatories, digital x-ray and a wheelchair lift. A volunteer network of more than 100 dentists, hygienists, and Grand Rapids Community College dental hygiene students work as dental healthcare providers. Through Miles of Smiles, kids can get quality dental care right at school, so they don't miss school days, and the families can depend on good and safe care without having to miss work.

The program has operated for 27 years and reduced dental disease by an estimated 37% among its patients.

The Holland Human Relations Commission presents the annual awards that recognize individuals and organizations who exemplify the virtues of social justice by promoting equal opportunity and equal access for residents of Holland in Housing, Education, Government/Community Relations, Health Services, Youth, and Lifetime Achievement.

“There are many great individuals and organizations in the city of Holland in Ottawa County in general — as many of you well know,” Holland Human/International Relations Manager Esther Fifelski told the crowd gathered at City Hall Wednesday, Jan. 18. "They’re committed to serving others. These individuals that are being recognized today do outstanding work to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion. These organizations are working to create a community of belonging.”

The awards are held each January to honor the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Fifelski says.

Justice award

Ottawa County Office of Public Defender received the Government/Community Relations award for serving impoverished individuals and people of color who are disproportionately represented as defendants in in the criminal justice system and for hosting two free expungement clinics in 2022 that assisted more than 160 individuals in Ottawa County to have eligible criminal convictions set aside and erased from their records.
Ottawa County Public Defender Nichole Jongsma-Derks accepts the 2022 Holland Human Relations Commission's Government/Community Relations Social Justice Award.
“Ottawa County understands that some residents have made mistakes in their pasts, have served their sentences, and are on roads to better lives,” a statement from the county says. “Criminal records can put obstacles in paths for such residents and their families. Expungement can ease that burden, so these residents can more easily find jobs, housing and other opportunities.”

I Am Academy was recognized with the 2022 Education Social Justice award for its work to mentor students of color and community partnerships. By partnering with area schools, I AM Academy empowers African American adolescents and young adults to achieve their full potential by centering their identity, cultivating relationships, supporting educational success, providing college experiences, and facilitating job readiness; ultimately changing the narrative and trajectory of their community.

Heights of Hope is a community development organization that focuses on the "Holland Heights" area of Holland, specifically the Stratford Way and Abbey Court neighborhood, home to an extremely diverse population with a variety of talents, strengths, challenges, and needs, a press release from the city says. Heights of Hope received the 2022 Housing Social Justice award for its dedication to the mission of affordable housing, recognizing that rent increases have a dramatic impact on nearly every aspect of residents' lives, including food security. With that mission in mind, Heights of Hope recently bought a six-plex apartment building on Abbey Court, providing six safe and affordable living units.

Youth award

The Holland Youth Advisory Core Council has named Greta Traver the Youth Social Justice Award winner for 2022. Traver is an advocate for bilingual tutoring and for calling out racism and homophobia. She helped found a bilingual tutoring program to assist students who struggle with the English language at the north branch of Herrick District Library. Being tutored in their native tongue helps ESL students learn quicker and achieve more. In addition, the youth council recognized Traver for standing up to fellow boat racing competitors, addressing racist and homophobic comments to other teams during a sporting event. An investigation ensued, and her actions led to a new policy to prevent further behavior like this.

“As the city’s Human Relations Commission, we want to celebrate the work of individuals and organizations that address inequity in our community,” commission Chairman Michelle Slikkers says. “Our goal is to not just promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in our community; but be an active collaborator with our partners in creating a community where all belong.”

Lifetime Achievement

The city’s human relations commission does not often present a Lifetime Achievement award for Social Justice, but this year the commission honored Ann Weller with the award.

Weller has put in countless hours of volunteering, made personal sacrifices, and displayed exceptional community spirit in her work over the past 21 years, a statement from the commission says. Weller is a founding member of the Alliance for Cultural and Ethnic Harmony, started in 1999 and has continued to serve as a board member, providing the city of Holland with counsel and education in the areas of social justice, academic growth, microaggressions, diversity, equity, inclusion, and equality. Through her serving as editor of ACEH’s weekly and monthly newsletters, Ann has been a foundational supporter of Out on The Lakeshore, First United Methodist Church of Holland, LAUP, I Am Academy, Holland Openly Secular Alliance, and many other organizations.

“Weller has earned a reputation for being a conscientious and effective advocate for those suffering from systemic oppression,” the release says. “Her commitment to equity, peace, and justice has helped to protect the greater Holland BIPOC community, children, consumers, the least fortunate, the older adult population, and other historically marginalized communities.”

In accepting her award, Weller said, “I grew up in the South when everything was segregated, legally and in practice. And even as a kid I knew this was not the way to live. So, throughout my life, before I moved here and since I moved here, if there are issues of peace and justice, if there are issues of gender equality, if there are issues of who can belong and who can’t belong, I will never be a bystander.”

Watch the full awards ceremony here.

For more information about the award recipients, visit socialjusticeawards.cityofholland.com.



 

Read more articles by Andrea Goodell.