BRADENTON -- Growing up in St. Louis, Dr. George Van Buren dreamed of becoming a major leaguer like his heroes Lou Brock and Bob Gibson.
Medicine was the furthest thing from the youngster's mind.
"I wanted to be a ballplayer," Van Buren said.
Baseball's loss was medicine's gain, especially in this community.
The medical director of Manatee County Rural Health Services Inc., Van Buren dedicated the last 25 years of his life to serving young patients who are under-insured or uninsured.
The pediatrician recently received recognition for his dedication -- the Jessie Trice Distinguished Clinician Award from the Florida Association of Community Health Centers at its annual meeting and educational summit.
The award honors individuals who exemplify excellence in health promotion, commitment to quality health care and successful partnerships in the community.
The FACHC is the leading advocate for community-based health care programs in the state.
"I love working with children and I love being able to do things that positively impact their lives," Van Buren said. "It's nice to be recognized for doing something that makes a difference in the lives of children."
Also senior vice president of medical affairs at MCRHS, he practices at Manatee Pediatrics, 712 39th St. W.
Van Buren was nominated for the award by Walter "Mickey" Presha, MCRHS president and chief executive officer.
"I saw something special in him when I hired him (in 1988)." Presha said. "It was clear he had an empathy and respect for all people. He remains passionate about providing quality medical care to the disenfranchised. It shows in everything he does. I had very high expectations for him and he has far surpassed those expectations. We are very proud of him."
Van Buren also volunteers time as a member of the board of directors of the Police Athletic League, the Children's Services Advisory Board of Manatee County and the Board of Directors of Manatee Memorial Hospital.
For more than 20 years he has led a team of MCRHS employees who volunteer during July and August to conduct free back-to-school sports physicals to area youths through a program he helped start.
Van Buren has also been widely recognized for inspiring Chelsea (Boston) Tehan, a young Manatee resident to become a doctor.
The two met 24 years ago when he allowed the then
6-year-old girl to shadow him and pretend to be a doctor as he made his rounds at an area hospital. He made such an impression she decided to become a doctor.
Today she is a pediatrician working alongside Van Buren, seeing 50 to 60 patients daily.
"Children sense when people are good," Dr. Tehan said. "He was warm and kind and from the perspective of a 6-year-old that was everything. He still works like there's no tomorrow and he's still patient and kind."
MCRHS, one of the largest federally qualified health centers in the southeastern United States, has received accreditation 14 consecutive years from the Joint Commission, the national accrediting organization for health care providers.
MCRHS provided $22.9 million in services to the uninsured in 2012.
Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 941-745-7055. Twitter: @vinmannix