Dentists are all about preventive care, says Joanne "Jo" Chouinard-Luth, D.M.D, MPH, M.S. She spent 30 years in practice embracing an approach of preventing and mitigating disease, and now she's using that same tactic in her philanthropy, promoting health and wellness as a way to help people avoid chronic illness and lead long, healthy lives.
Chouinard-Luth is one half of a dynamic couple dedicated to supporting recreation and wellness at Holy Cross. She and her husband, John E. Luth '74, made the largest single donation in Holy Cross history. Their $40 million gift supported the renovation and expansion of the Hart Center and the creation of the Luth Athletic Complex for varsity athletes, which opened in 2018.
Now they have turned their attention to the wellness of all Holy Cross students, as part of their historic donation will fund the new Joanne Chouinard-Luth Recreation and Wellness Center, dubbed "The Jo" in honor of Chouinard-Luth and her commitment to holistic wellness.
While not an alumna, Chouinard-Luth — and her personal crusade — are responsible for providing the College with a new home for fitness and fun, a facility for which Holy Cross has been longing for more than 60 years.
Evolving From Dentistry to Nutrition Research
Chouinard-Luth likens the dental profession to the canary in a coal mine — a songbird brought into mines to detect carbon monoxide or other dangerous gases. Canaries are more susceptible to such gases, so if miners noticed their canary had stopped singing, they knew something dangerous was coming. Likewise, cavities detected by a dentist can be evidence of a high-sugar diet that can exacerbate insulin resistance and lead to chronic illness, such as Type 2 diabetes.
"When I went to dental school, they were not lecturing to us saying, 'By the way, this is all chronic inflammation, that's what you're going to fight all day,' but as I progressed in dental practice that seemed to be the case," Chouinard-Luth says. "By the end of my time in practice, I was diagnosing full-blown Type 2 diabetes in adolescents."
Having a front-row seat to this kind of health shift inspired Chouinard-Luth to return to school in 2011, earning a master's degree in nutrition at Columbia University's Institute of Human Nutrition. Nutrition was always the foundation in caring for her dental patients and holding a master's degree in public health made the leap to wellness a natural one. Her degree focused on the prevention and mitigation of risk factors for chronic diseases and metabolic syndrome, a cluster of conditions that occur together, increasing a person's risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke and Type 2 diabetes.
She then took her nutrition work from the classroom to the kitchen, earning a chef's certificate from the Institute of Culinary Education in 2016. "I thought a natural extension of this would be to become a chef. I wanted to apply what I knew about nutrition," she says. "If you are eating meals that are supposedly healthy, but taste like the box they came in, it is uninspiring to want to make that a habit. Getting interested in meal prep can be fun and is a big part of the solution."
Chouinard-Luth, who studied nutrition as an undergraduate biology major at Newton College of the Sacred Heart, says she was always interested in the subject and its relevance in medical and dental care. That inquisitiveness expanded into other projects, including integrating nutrition into the curriculum at the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine, her alma mater, where she serves on the board of overseers, and working with her local YMCA in Madison, New Jersey, where she serves on the board of directors.
Commitment to Wellness
A future view of the facility, approaching the main entrance from Hogan Campus Center
"We are always talking about how much quality of life is enhanced by lifestyle and, of course, lifestyle means both nutrition and fitness," Chouinard-Luth says. "We understand that most of chronic disease comes from inflammation, so what people choose in terms of exercise and food can greatly change patient outcomes, whether they are currently perfectly healthy or fighting a chronic disease. You get the tools to make those kinds of lifestyle choices at a recreation and wellness center."
This is why Chouinard-Luth is so excited about her namesake: It will become the place where Holy Cross students can find the tools to care for their mind, body and spirit. The new 52,000-square-foot facility will sport multilevel windows on all sides, creating a bright, inviting space for the College community. Chouinard-Luth is a big fan of glass as a design element and says it is especially important in a space like this: "The visibility of the activity is motivational, all by itself! This new space will make wellness activities more accessible, doable and obvious. If your roommate is meeting you for lunch, but insists on running the track before they join you, you may be more likely to put your shoes on and get to the gym that day."
With an estimated fall 2020 opening, the new facility is being built at the upper campus entrance on College Street, on the site of the former Field House, which Chouinard-Luth also views as an advantage: "The position of the building is fabulous! Everyone who comes to campus will see it and it will be a central part of what's happening on campus. There is a great vibrancy that will come from the thoughtful placement of the physical space."
The Luths at the 2018 ribbon cutting for their namesake athletics facility
"We wanted to make sure that everyone has the same sense of participation and possibility," she says. "Varsity athletes get health and physical skill opportunities automatically because they are being trained and primed at every moment. Yet, everyone has to be active! Physicality, attention to your food environment, sleep, mindfulness, etc., put you in a better position as a student and as a person; a student is better able to tackle anything and everything that is coming at them."
Michele Murray, vice president for student affairs and dean of students at the College, heartily agrees: "This new facility will raise the profile of well-being, not just fitness, but general and overall well-being on campus: stress reduction, enough sleep. It will be a place for them to gather and be in community and recreate in the true sense of the word: to give time to create themselves anew. It is a whole new era that will open up for Holy Cross students and I'm excited about that."
A Community Space
John '74 and Jo Luth at the construction site
At The Jo, the community will have access to sports courts, a jogging track, weight rooms, locker rooms and three rooms for yoga, cycling and other fitness classes. The building will be a home for all club and intramural sports, as well as general recreation, fitness and wellness programming for students, faculty and staff.
A 1/10th-mile track will occupy the upper level of the three-story building, suspended above two basketball courts on the second level and looking out toward the hills of Worcester. There will be dedicated areas for weight training and cardio machines on the second floor and on the upper level around the track. Green space and a landscaped path will connect The Jo to the Hoval, and the additional outdoor space provides even more options for fitness classes or events during warmer months.
"This space will be for the entire campus — not just students, but also for faculty and staff. It will bring everyone together," says Mike Leavitt, director of the College's Office of Campus Recreation. "We're going to have state-of-the-art equipment and new features, like the walking track. And we'll be able to make club sports more competitive, with opportunities to host games and tournaments in the new space."
Leavitt is also looking forward to his office space in the new building, where his neighbors will be Elizabeth Drexler-Hines, director of wellness programming, and Jenn Coode, manager of Worksite Wellness, the employee wellness program. Drexler-Hines says this configuration will give them more opportunities for organic collaboration that benefits the entire campus.
"We have been working on a strategic plan for our division and one of the main points is student well-being. We are thinking about wellness and well-being from a more holistic model," Drexler-Hines says. "The building is going to be a place for that, as a community gathering space, not only for students, but for faculty, staff and community members, as well. Having a multiuse space like this new recreation and wellness center will give us the opportunity to think outside of just physical wellness classes. We want people to understand that wellness is beyond just physical and I'm looking forward to bringing that holistic model into this amazing new space."
While programming is still well in the planning stage, she anticipates expanded yoga offerings, as well as mindfulness classes and trainings, and events that connect physical wellness with spiritual wellness.
The Jesuit Connection
The three-story 52,000-square-foot facility will sport a 1/10th-mile track on the upper level overlooking the hills of Worcester and campus
"What I see in Hamilton and other Holy Cross students is an absence of negativity about problems or injustice. What is there, is an attitude of figuring out how to be part of the solution," she says. "And this work is my contribution to the issues of ever-increasing chronic disease burdens worldwide. I thought things were going in the wrong direction in the medical field and that there should be more focus on mitigation of disease through nutrition, increased exercise, reduced stress, attention to sleep and communication."
She feels that the better people care for themselves — at places like The Jo or the YMCA — the more equipped they will be to make a positive impact on their communities and the world. "To me, the more energy you have, the greater your abilities to find solutions to issues you care about," she says.
Chouinard-Luth has enthusiastically embraced the College's mission of men and women for and with others and has her own connections to Mount St. James. On weekends during her college years in Newton, she could often be found in Worcester — at Holy Cross. "Because I knew John as a college student, I would socialize more on weekends at Holy Cross than anywhere and that became my community," she says. "I would go to dances at Healy and I remain an avid dancer to this day."
It seems fitting, then, that in the spot where she found community and camaraderie as a college student, Chouinard-Luth's donation will facilitate the same for future generations of Crusaders. "The Luths' commitment to the College and to the well-being of all students is astounding," Murray says. "They have high energy and a love for Holy Cross and its students. It is very clear, through their unwavering commitment and very generous donations, that they want the best for our students. And because of their generosity, we will be able to provide the best for them."
Written by Maura Sullivan Hill for the Summer 2019 issue of Hole Cross Magazine.
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