Sharon Harrell

Brian Canfield, COO FirstHealth of the Carolinas; Sharon Harrell, D.D.S., director of FirstHealth Dental Care; and Daniel Barnes, D.O., president, FirstHealth Physician Group. Photo courtesy of FirstHealth.

Sharon Nicholson Harrell, DDS, is the embodiment of the dream Martin Luther King, Jr. shared with the nation nearly 60 years ago. A native of Rockingham who remembers sitting in her doctor’s colored waiting room as a child, Harrell has served as the inaugural director of dental care for FirstHealth of the Carolinas since 1998.

On Friday, she was recognized with the FirstHealth MLK Leadership Award during a special tribute event held at Moore Regional Hospital.

Longtime friend and colleague, Daniel Barnes, D.O., president of the FirstHealth Physician Group presented the award, noting he could think of no one more “fitting” to receive such an honor.

FirstHealth Dental Care provides preventive care, regular cleaning and exams, fillings and tooth extractions to approximately 1,000 patients each month. The program operates a full-time flagship dental office in Southern Pines, and two part-time school-based dental clinics in Biscoe and Mt. Gilead, to serve children from birth to 21 years who receive Medicaid, Health Choice or are uninsured and qualify by income level.

“My life’s passion is comprised of working with youth,” Harrell said.

The eldest of three daughters, Harrell’s said her parents encouraged them to dream big. Her mother worked in a weaving mill and her father took on three jobs to earn enough money to send his girls to college.

Harrell received her dental degree from the UNC School of Dentistry in 1987, where she serves as an adjunct professor. She completed an advanced general dentistry residency at the University of Maryland Dental School in 1988, and a Master’s Degree in Public Health at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health in 1990. She has received the American Dental Association Golden Apple Award for outstanding leadership in mentoring for her work with high school students, dental students, and dental auxiliary students from Montgomery Community College and Central Carolina Community College, and young dentists.

In 2011, she was the first recipient of the Pediatric Oral Health Service Award given by the North Carolina Academy of Pediatric Dentistry. Harrell was also selected as a recipient of the North Carolina Dental Society’s Citizenship Award, chosen as the Health Policy and Management Alumnus of the Year at the UNC Gillings School of Global Health, and participated in the first Surgeon General’s report on oral health satellite media tour.

In addition to her administrative and clinical responsibilities, Harrell serves on the FirstHealth Physician Group’s executive council and is a member of the FirstHealth Provider Wellbeing Committee.

Harrell’s passion is expanding access to dental care for underserved children, but it was during her first year as a dental student that she realized the impact that MLK’s legacy had on her own life.

In conversation, a classmate told Harrell she appreciated King was a great man but didn’t understand why President Ronald Reagan had announced a new federal holiday to honor the civil rights leader’s birthday.

“I don’t think she realized if it were not for Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I would not even have had the opportunity to sit beside her in that classroom,” Harrell said.

Her graduation as a dentist -- together with her sisters who pursued careers in medicine and law -- Harrell said was the manifestation of the dreams of her parents.

When she faced racism in her professional life, she recalled how her father always encouraged her to focus on being the very best she could be.

“He said, “Never be known as the black dentist: always be known as the best dentist,” she said, to loud applause from the audience.

Her own dreams were realized 22 years ago when Charles Frock, former CEO of FirstHealth, asked her -- a “wet behind the ears, young African-American female dentist with a passion for public health” -- to lead the organization’s new dental care program.

“He had faith in me and he had confidence in me, just like my parents did,” Harrell said. “I will be forever grateful to Mr. Frock for giving me the opportunity to live my dream.”

“Without the vision and leadership of Dr. King, I would not be standing before you today...because of Dr. King’s dream, I was able to fulfill mine.”

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