LEWISBURG, WV (LOOTPRESS) – In her new role, a native West Virginian hopes her passion for public health and partnership will address prevention, equity, diversity and justice across the continuum of care and community in efforts to improve holistic health and well-being across the state.
Courtney Hereford became the new executive director of the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine’s (WVSOM) Center for Rural and Community Health (CRCH) in January.
“As a native West Virginian, leaving the state as a young adult brought out this passion in me,” Hereford said. “My exposure to rural communities in other states and countries helped me see the disparity, complexity, strength and resiliency of West Virginia more clearly.”
She began working at the school’s CRCH in December 2017, focusing primarily on research. Employees at the center have an important role that includes developing and implementing statewide programming, clinical and community-based research, education, training and professional development, and dynamic outreach and collaboration across the public health spectrum. The center primarily focuses on community engagement, education and clinical research.
When the CRCH was founded in 2010, its focus was largely health education, but now, more than a decade later, the center aims to drive engagement in rural health across the state and region.
“We accomplish that by partnering with communities on their health priorities and together building capacity, infrastructure and leadership to empower their highest level of health and wellness,” Hereford said. “Our mission, vision and reach have substantially expanded over time to encompass evidence-based health education and training, as well as research, professional development, capacity and infrastructure building, and targeted engagement, outreach and partnership spanning an array of stakeholder communities and objectives.”
Hereford attributes the center’s quick growth to her predecessor, Drema Mace, Ph.D., who is now WVSOM’s vice president for community engagement and development. She said that since 2016, the center has expanded from a staff of five with an annual budget of about $350,000 in 2016 to its current staff of more than 10 WVSOM employees, three AmeriCorps service workers and key faculty advisors bringing in more than $7 million in grants, contracts and purchasing agreements in that time.
“We are like a family in that we have an especially diverse team with dynamic skills, experiences and perspectives. We are all dedicated to one another, our communities and our mission and are nurtured and driven every day to grow because we believe the work we do impacts community health and well-being for the better,” Hereford said.
Those skills and areas of expertise have enabled the creation of varied programming that falls under the CRCH umbrella, such as statewide health literacy programs, professional development and pipeline programming, the Community Health Education Resource Person (CHERP) program, opioid and substance use toolkits and workshops, clinical and translational science, COVID-19 response projects, and the Greenbrier County Health Alliance, a nonprofit partner of WVSOM’s CRCH that works to strengthen systems, policies and environments to advance health equity through grants management, partnerships and collaborations.
“I am a firm believer that we can have the brightest, most innovative medicine, science, technology and health silos there are, but if we aren’t authentically learning and acting with our partners and communities we won’t know the barriers, priorities and nuances that impact the ability of those advances to effect real and sustained change,” Hereford said.
She said she understands that health issues in West Virginia are complex, and it is her goal as the center’s executive director to forge engagement among those dynamic partnerships.
“Health in West Virginia is multidimensional and ever-evolving and requires us all on board and engaged together to share the passion, energy and expertise necessary to meet that complexity. We are only as strong and impacting as our partnerships, and the CRCH is privileged to partner across so many fronts,” she said.
Even with the center’s exponential growth, there are still unexplored ways in which a medical school can help improve the lives of West Virginians, and grassroots communities in turn enhance medical training and practice, Hereford said.
“I see us continuing to grow in presence and programming as the Center for Rural and Community Health here at WVSOM, where students, faculty, staff and stakeholders understand that they are our most valued communities, and whatever their passion and priority, we will be of service,” she said. “We will continue to grow opportunities for WVSOM students and stakeholders to engage with rural communities in meaningful ways that positively impact their training, orientation and future practice.”
She also hopes the center can become a resource hub recognized across the region, in which stakeholders across Appalachia and the rural U.S. can utilize the center’s expertise and model to advance their own health programming and priorities.
Mace is confident those visions will become a reality under the guidance of Hereford. She said that Hereford is driven to make an impact.
“I am excited to welcome Courtney as the new executive director of the CRCH. She has a rare combination of intellect, practicality, vision and heart. She has a passion for partnering with rural communities to improve health,” Mace said. “I expect that she will build on the center’s solid infrastructure, working with the incredible CRCH staff, remain on the cutting edge of community engagement within the WVSOM campus, in our community, statewide and nationally.”
Hereford is a returned Peace Corps volunteer with a master’s degree in public health and a master’s degree in social work from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.