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Gary Bess Elected as a 2023 National Social Work Pioneer

By Alan Sheckter

A culmination of a lifelong pursuit of social justice for all, Gary Bess, PhD, co-principal at Gary Bess Associates, has been elected as a National Association of Social Work (NASW) Social Work Pioneer. He will be duly recognized on October 14, 2023, in Washington, DC. This latest award follows his induction into the California Social Work Hall of Distinction in 2021.

“Being selected as a Social Work Pioneer by your colleagues is one of the profession’s highest honors,” the NASW Foundation stated in its congratulatory letter. “You are one of a select few chosen to join the ranks of social workers who have explored new territories and built outposts for human services around the country. You have made important contributions to the social work profession, and we wanted to laud you for your service.”

Dr. Bess, who earned a doctorate in social work at the University of Southern California (USC) and master’s degrees in social work from Case Western Reserve University and applied sociology from Kent State University, both in Ohio, has contributed to the national social work landscape and those served by it since the 1970s. He is an expert catalyst for nonprofit agencies and those they serve through grant writing, project management, program evaluation, advocacy, and service design and implementation.

Marine Dzhgalyan, chief executive officer (CEO) at All-Inclusive Community Health Center, a federally qualified health center (FQHC) in Los Angeles County, has known Dr. Bess for about 20 years. “I’ve had so many wonderful experiences with Gary and his team over the years,” she recalled. “When I first began this journey in the FQHC field, I was very inexperienced and conflicted. Gary was one of the people whose supportive words and professional guidance gave me the strength and patience to learn, gain confidence, and begin a life-changing career. I don’t think Gary knows the level of positive influence he’s had on me, my professional decisions, and the impact it’s made on my personal life and ultimately my family. … For me, Gary is a legend in this field. I’ve always looked up to him, and gained skills and knowledge from him. More importantly, I learned to give back even more than I could ever imagine. That’s the type of influence he’s had, which has extended to my team and family.”

Before establishing Gary Bess Associates, Dr. Bess directed two free medical clinics in California, and since 1991, he has led Gary Bess Associates as an effective consultant – and advocate – to health and human services agencies, including many FQHCs across the United States that are dedicated to providing high-quality, low-cost health services to the medically underserved among us. During the past 30-plus years, with Dr. Bess at the helm, Gary Bess Associates has presided over activities that have brought hundreds of millions of dollars to countless nonprofit agencies, helping them succeed and advance their healthcare, human services, and social services programs to the benefit of hundreds of thousands of patients and clients. In addition, Dr. Bess has provided direct consultations with several California counties and Native American tribes, authored many scholarly published works. In addition, he has also served as adjunct faculty at USC, UCLA, and California State University.

Bahram Bahremand, CEO of Friends of Family Health Center (FOF), an FQHC based in Orange County, California, credits Dr. Bess for playing an invaluable role in assisting the establishment of FOF as an FQHC in 2012. “His heart is in helping people, organizational skills and professionalism, and transparency,” Mr. Bahremand said. “In short, Gary helped me to learn and understand FQHCs.”

Luis Pardo, executive director of Worksite Wellness, LA, which helps low- and moderate-income Los Angeles County residents, regardless of immigration status, navigate the sometimes confusing and challenging process of healthcare coverage, has known Dr. Bess for about 15 years and is grateful for his guidance. Dr. Bess “is an excellent choice” for the Pioneer Award, Mr. Pardo said. “He has provided us with tremendous support and helped us weather severe downturns. He has helped place Worksite Wellness LA in sustainable financial footing and we are deeply thankful to Gary and his team for their tremendous support and encouragement.”

Mr. Pardo was pleased to share a story about Dr. Bess that helps illustrate the admiration he has garnered over the years from his colleagues. “I am a member of the board of directors of Saban Community Clinic, formerly the Los Angeles Free Clinic,” Mr. Pardo stated. “Gary was the first official CEO of the clinic and the staff still remembers him fondly for his leadership. The clinic had a lovely photo of Gary cutting the ribbon of one of the clinic’s satellites. Gary had that same picture framed and hanging in his office in Paradise, California. Sadly, a disastrous fire destroyed most of the town of Paradise <in 2018>, including Gary’s office, and the photo was lost. He mentioned that he treasured that picture and when I brought up that conversation during one of the clinic board meetings everyone was very touched. The staff of the clinic reproduced a copy of the photo and placed it in a lovely frame, and included a thank you card signed by all the board members. We were so thrilled we could recognize his leadership and replace something dear from all that was lost in the fire.”

A long-practicing vegan, Dr. Bess lives in suburban Sacramento, California, with his wife, Cindy, and his dog, Kodiak. He is also CEO of KG Orchard, a pistachio grower and distributor. His daughter, Katie Strautman, who also earned a doctorate in social work from USC, is co-principal at Gary Bess Associates, which is set to continue its good work long into the future.

Founded in 1955, the NASW provides guidance, research, up to date information, advocacy, and other resources for its members and for social workers in general. The NASW describes itself as “the largest membership organization of professional social workers in the world. NASW works to enhance the professional growth and development of its members, to create and maintain professional standards, and to advance sound social policies.”

Alan Sheckter, a senior grant writer and project manager, has been on staff at Gary Bess Associates for 15 years.

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Congratulations, Gary! Your success is well deserved.

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