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Bell’s Difficult Road a Journey
Paved with Gems
When we sat down with longtime CCF fundholder Dr. Thaddeus John Bell to talk about life’s twists, turns, and second chances, we had no idea he was about to go into the hospital himself. “I’ve been working to meet with everyone I can. I met with five different partners last week.” (We’re thrilled to report he’s past this now, and doing well.)
The partners range from heads of medical organizations, to Cumulus and Apex Broadcasting, to famous jazz musicians, to everyday patients and Barbershop and Beautyshop Talk attendees who Dr. Bell reaches—and preaches to about healthcare tips—through his nonprofit, Closing the Gap in Healthcare.
The North Charleston physician has been working for decades to address health disparities* and improve outcomes for patients, especially in the black community. His passion for helping others is surely the secret sauce for his success, for it’s a success that has come simultaneous with the emotional blows of tremendous family loss. His son Thad passed away in 1992 just after finishing undergrad, due to unexpected complications from a knee injury. His daughter Tonisha—who helped him co-found and direct his organizations—was taken in 2015 by cancer.
There is no “up side” to these tragedies, but Dr. Bell chooses to focus on the positive. When his son died and life insurance policy funds came in, Bell says, “My wife and I decided we didn’t need the money. We said, let’s take the money and start a scholarship in memory of Thad.”
And thus, the first of two Bell family scholarship programs managed at CCF was founded. Supporting a Morehouse student (Thad’s alma mater), the program provides funding each year for up to four years.
Dr. Bell didn’t just stumble upon CCF as a philanthropic vehicle. Having been one of the first African American medical students at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC), Dr. Bell received scholarships from the Saul Alexander Fund. “$250 a year in 1972 was a lot of money. It was very, very helpful,” he remembers. “After I graduated, I almost forget about it. Then somebody from the Community Foundation called me and said ‘our records indicate that you received money from the SAF.’ So somebody came to interview me about receiving these funds! Frankly that was the only assistance I got to go to medical school.”
Bell later practiced at MUSC, becoming the Associate Dean of the College of Medicine and eventually receiving a joint appointment as the Director of the Office of Diversity for the entire University. “I recognized that all of the students of African American descent and other ethnic minorities had one problem in common: most of the time they didn’t have any money.”
He was inspired to start a second scholarship program, specifically for all underrepresented students at MUSC. Knowing he needed an initial $250,000 to endow a fund, the Lowcountry Jazz Festival was born. “Some of my friends recommended that we do a jazz festival. And that was very frightening to me. I didn’t know anything about putting on a jazz festival!”
But his daughter Tonisha, then an MBA student at USC, knew it would work. Tonisha helped Bell connect the fundraising arm of the Jazz Festival with his Closing the Gap in Healthcare education series, all to fund his scholarship programs and keep educating the community about health disparities year-round.
Ten years later, Bell’s daughter Tiffany now helps him run the organizations. And there’s no slowing down. “My goal is to raise a million dollars—to get the fund corpus to that amount so we can give $10K scholarships to six students a year, covering all six colleges at MUSC.” Bell believes increasing the number of minority healthcare professionals going back into their communities to educate and give back is the long-term answer for addressing the health disparities.
Dr. Bell continues to hold seminars (including the free Jazzing with Sugar diabetes event held on Jazz Fest weekend), reach out to schools, get sponsorships from cities and hospitals and grantors, all in an effort to help save lives. “I tell people of color, if we’re ever going to change and if we’re ever going to live a quality of life and a longevity of life our white counterparts enjoy, we’ve got to change our attitude and how we think about healthcare.”
*A health disparity is when the burden of disease is greater in one group of people as opposed to another. For example, African Americans die from cancer more than any other group of people. Reasons for health disparities include lack of access to facilities, lack of education about symptoms, and fear based on fact (such as the Tuskegee experiments) but continuing as mistrust for modern medical professionals and treatments. Visit www.closingthegapinhealthcare.org to learn more.
Visit www.lowcountryjazzfestival.com for tickets to the 10th Annual Festival, dedicated to the late Tonisha Bell Alston.