Hertford County native Catherine Parker received the inaugural Public Health Early Career Alumni Achievement Award during East Carolina University’s College of Health and Human Performance’s National Public Health Week celebration.
Just six months after starting her professional career with Roanoke Chowan Community Health Center, Parker took on leadership of its school-based health program, working with the public school system in Hertford County.
“I’ve always been passionate about making wellness fun and that radiated—my supervisors saw that I’d be good match to work with youth. And I love it. It’s been super rewarding and exciting,” she said.
“I grew up in Hertford County. In high school, my health classes were focused more on sports than on health. It left me wanting a lot more. Youth deserve—they have a right—to know how to take care of themselves, particularly around reproductive health and safety. I have a strong passion for youth wellness and empowerment. Our work covers a broad range, from teaching prekindergarten students how to brush their teeth to teaching high school students how to build healthier relationships. We try to customize our efforts based on what school staff are seeing as issues with their students.”
Among the initiatives that Parker has supported as director of the center are the Farm to School to Healthcare project that established school gardens; student-led farmers markets that provide vouchers for access to free fruits and vegetables; and a literacy initiative within the clinic.
“I had amazing preparation at ECU,” said Parker, who earned her bachelor’s degree in 2010 and her master’s in 2012. “Faculty and staff in the health education and promotion department were incredible. The program fit exactly what I wanted to do and gave me room for creative freedom. I was fortunate to work with Student Health and Campus Wellness, where I was able to put what I learned in class into action right away. Those opportunities really prepared me. And being treated as a professional and equal member of the team, even though I was a student, meant so much to me. I think about that when I’m supervising students now,” she said.
Parker may have graduated but she hasn’t stopped learning. “One of my fears is that I’m going to get stagnant,” she said. “I love learning from other people and being inspired by what they’re doing. It motivates me.”
She was named a Bernstein Community Health Leadership Fellow in 2017 and selected for the Rural Economic Development Institute (REDI) in 2018. She’s also involved with numerous professional and community organizations, including as a board member for the North Carolina School-Based Health Alliance and a member of the Town of Murfreesboro Parks and Rec Advisory Committee.
“Everything we do is based on relationships. Community work is all about knowing and caring for people and making connections with them. Being on the parks and rec committee isn’t part of my job description, but it’s valuable to the work I do. It’s important to understand how we all fit together.
“I’m so proud that in my work I can be true to myself and my values. And that I can give back to a community that’s given so much to me. I’m able to express myself, share ideas, test new things and get people excited about these initiatives. I’ve done things I never imagined I could and it’s been through partnerships with great people in our community.”
In their nomination materials, Parker’s colleagues wrote that “Catherine’s love and passion for rural health, youth health and community health is evident in all her work. She is extremely committed to the community that raised her. She has led this center and staff to new heights of success that exceed all expectations.”