Sociologist Tom Plaut ’52 teaches and consults on the social aspects of health care in low-income communities

Tom Plaut '52, has been bridging cultural barriers to rural healthcare delivery since the 1980s. At that point, he was a professor at Mars Hill University in the mountains of North Carolina, an economically disadvantaged area with poor health outcomes. Many residents were not receiving health care.  Working with the Mountain Area Health Education Center (MAHEC), Tom and his colleagues conducted 40 focus groups with residents, teachers, social and medical services providers.

The team found that many locals did not trust the clinic doctors, who came from outside the area, with lifestyles off-putting to the locals. Simple access to care also was a barrier. Interviews with teachers revealed many children had never seen a dentist. Other focus groups indicated many seniors lacked transportation to clinics. A 1990 grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation enabled bringing teams of dentists into middle schools, then health fairs for senior citizens and the creation of a county-wide community health planning organization that still exists today, some 30 years later. Similar county-based organizations were organized throughout North Carolina as the “Healthy Carolinians Program.”  Tom’s project’s research and organizational methods were published in juried journals and textbooks used in social work and public health programs.
After retiring from teaching, Tom was invited to work with Consider Haiti, a non-profit organization in Asheville, NC which sends doctors, nurses, nutritionists and lay volunteers to Montrouis, Haiti and surrounding mountain villages twice each year. From 2006 to 2018 he made 18 trips to Haiti, doing intake and limited translating in some 80 clinics. The visiting teams provide nutrition and medical services to sick and malnourished children. Consider Haiti pays a small local staff of Community Health and agricultural agents to provide ongoing education and care. Families of children completing a six-month nutrition program receive pregnant goats for milk, meat and income, and simple filters to purify drinking water. Key to the program’s success, says Tom, is the consistency of its visiting teams, many of whom have been with the organization for 20 years, creating friendships and trust with Haitian co-workers. (See
Tom credits his Shady Hill teachers Edith Caudill and Everett Smith for allowing students’ creativity and curiosity to flourish through hands-on learning. He says, “I was able to learn by doing and find the beginnings of a moral compass.”
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