Joe Cheray: A friend indeed of Tennessee Town becomes a friend in need of GraceMed

Just behind GraceMed’s Capitol Family Clinic in Topeka is a park dedicated to the memory of Aaron Douglas, regarded by many as the founding father of African American art. Douglas was born in Topeka, just a generation or so after the historic migration of freed slaves, largely from Tennessee, to the neighborhoods in north central Topeka that would come to be known as Tennessee Town.

Flash forward something like 140 years, and you’ll find the innovative spirit of Aaron Douglas living on at his namesake park among the artists at the annual fair that also bears his name. You’ll also find Joe Cheray, a volunteer organizer for the event. Although she does not live in Tennessee Town, she does spend a lot of time in GraceMed’s newest Topeka neighborhood, reaching out to the community to connect its residents with a cultural experience that has come to mean a lot to her.

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Joe Cheray receives ongoing dental care at Capitol Family Clinic.

Joe is pictured here with Dental Hygienist Kaitlyn Modean.

“I got involved with the Fair after meeting Staci Ogle and catching some of her enthusiasm for the way art can bring a community together,” Joe said. (Staci is a local artist who has been active on the Northern Topeka or NOTO Arts Board.) “Tennessee Town and the Aaron Douglas Fair make a great venue for expanding our access to talented local artists.”

The fine art of overcoming

An artist in her own right (though she might be reluctant to say so), Joe has dabbled in the graphic arts and for several years authored a blog in support of fellow scrapbook artists. But her greatest work has been done on the canvas of her own life as anyone who gets to know her will quickly understand and appreciate.

As anyone knows who has grown up in a family with low income, it’s often not just a matter of what you have to live without. It’s also a matter of what you have to live with. For Joe, that unfortunately meant abuse – of every kind.

“It’s not something that’s easy to talk about, of course, but it’s also not something that gets better by ignoring it,” Joe admits. “Growing up in an abusive home like that, you can’t help feeling bad about yourself, even if you are able to recognize that it’s not your fault.”

One of the ways the abuse expressed itself was in the neglect of her medical and dental care. One memory in particular stands out as a case in point.

“When I was 10 years old, my grandparents took me to the dentist,” Joe recalled. “I needed to have a couple of baby teeth removed and had some permanent teeth that were wedged up. When my grandfather heard what it would cost to do the work, he decided to buy a satellite dish instead. That kind of thing can really work on your self esteem and make you think you’re just not worth it.”

Shifting gears to serving others

Time for another flash forward. If you can imagine it, picture the same Joe Cheray who grew up learning to believe in anything but herself now running for a seat on the Topeka City Council. How does that happen?

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Joe holds a sign for her campaign for Topeka City Council.

“I know people think that you have to have a lot of confidence to run for office,” she says, “and I guess that’s true to some extent. But for me, it just wasn’t about me. It was a way to help other people and make a difference. The last thing I thought about when I ran for office was myself. If I did, I probably never would have run.”

Although she was not elected, Joe’s life had already taken a turn in the direction of committed public service. In addition to her role in Community Outreach for the Aaron Douglas Art Fair, she was elected Vice President of the Capital Area Democratic Women’s Club and served on the Kansas Democratic Committee for Disabilities Caucus.

The more she ventured out into the public square, however, the more the legacy of dental problems from her childhood began to bother her. Not to mention the pain her teeth were causing her. She had tried to get the care she needed, but couldn’t find a dentist who would accept her insurance. Something had to be done.

The unexpected solution

That’s when Joe’s commitment to Tennessee Town paid an unexpected dividend. Alice Weingartner, GraceMed’s Director of Community Development was presenting plans for the new Capitol Family Clinic to the Tennessee Town Neighborhood Improvement Association one evening when Joe was in attendance.

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Joe at the Topeka Chamber of Commerce Expo event.

It was here that GraceMed’s Alice Weingartner told her about GraceMed’s dental care.

“I remember that I had mixed emotions at first about GraceMed coming to Tennessee Town,” Joe confided. “When Dillons left, it created a food desert in the neighborhood. But then I realized people also needed easier access to medical care, and GraceMed’s new building has also been a welcomed enhancement to the appearance of a forgotten street corner. So it’s been a great step in the right direction for this part of the city.”

The friendship Joe and Alice struck up was further advanced through their mutual interest in the Aaron Douglas Art Fair. “Joe just has a genuine enthusiasm for people that’s kind of contagious,” Alice said. “We found a common mission to serve the neighborhoods around GraceMed and contribute to a better quality of life here.”

When they reconnected at the 2018 Greater Topeka Partnership Business Expo, Joe shared with her new friend the struggles she has had with her oral health, unaware that GraceMed now could offer dental care from its new clinic.

“When I shared with her that we could help her and that we accepted Medicaid, she broke down into tears and hugged me for several minutes,” Alice recalled. “She was relieved to know she had a place to go for her care.”

Although GraceMed does provide both restorative and preventive dental services, when surgery is required, we refer patients to specialists who partner with us. In Joe’s case, surgery was in order.

“Our exam revealed that she needed her wisdom teeth removed,” said Lacey Randa, DDS. “That’s really where her pain was coming from, and it can be pretty intense. After providing a cleaning, we were able to send Joe to an oral surgeon who is available to see our patients.”

The courage to live beyond the pain

Within several weeks, Joe was living virtually pain free for the first time in many years. She’s happy to report she’s also lost some extra weight and feels much better about herself. She describes it as nothing less than “a new lease on life.”

“After having been a patient at GraceMed, I’ve had a chance to get a deeper appreciation for the new clinic in town,” Joe reflected. “A lot of patients who come to them may not have the best opinion of themselves, kind of like me. But they really treat you like you’re important to them. Not just your health, but who you are and how they can help you get the most out of your life. You just can’t over estimate the value and impact of someone really caring for someone else.”

As her friend Alice sees it, the story of Joe Cheray is every bit as inspirational as the care she received at GraceMed. “The lives so many of our patients live require an inner strength that is just immeasurable. They battle enormous odds every day. Joe has had to overcome circumstances that could have destroyed her happiness, let alone the amazing selflessness she has. She thrives on serving others. She’s a walking life lesson in who we can all be if we find the strength to try.”

Changing your life’s prospects is hard work. No question. But it’s also a fine art. That’s because the work doesn’t even begin without the inspiration to get there, the vision to imagine where you want to go and the courage to try.

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The Aaron Douglas Mural on the campus of nearby Washburn University was the inspiration for the Art Fair of the same name hosted in the park behind Capitol Family.

The annual event has become a passion for GraceMed patient, Joe Cheray.

Maybe that’s why Joe Cheray feels so at home at Aaron Douglas’s Art Park. She has that same inspiration, vision and courage it must have taken for Tennessee Town’s favorite son to found a new movement in American art. At GraceMed, we’re grateful to be a stop on her brave journey and proud to be a part of a community that is founded on that same spirit of hope.

Kyle Bowen