July 15, 2021
When did you join UTHealth? What brought you here?
I started my career with UTHealth in 1985. At the time, I was working as a dietitian with the City of Houston Health Department for their WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) Program grant. I heard from a co-worker about an opening at UTHealth for a Nutrition Education Coordinator for their WIC Program contract. The WIC Program is a USDA public health program for women, infants, and children, which contracts with state health departments to provide healthy foods, nutrition education, and breastfeeding support to low-income families. The program is in all states and sponsored by multiple agencies within states, so applying to the position at UTHealth was an easy decision to make and was a slight promotion. Being a UT-Austin graduate myself, I was happy to now have the opportunity to work within The University of Texas System.
Tell me about your work history here.
When I first started, we were a very small local agency (the term used to refer to the local WIC contractors). I was the only dietitian, other than the program director. We had 3-4 clerical staff and we officed in a small strip center space just north of the Med Center on San Jacinto. We also had a small satellite clinic at the San Jose Clinic in the downtown area, which we went to weekly. It was a great learning experience for me because I learned all aspects of the program operations, not just the nutritionist job duties. I became the “chief, cook, and bottle washer” because someone needed to. I learned all of the eligibility screening policies, how to weigh and measure (even the squirmy little kiddos), and how to correctly do a fingerstick.
As we began to serve more families, we needed more staff, so we hired and I was promoted to assistant director. In that position, I was able to work a bit more closely with the community. I identified a need for services in the Spring Branch area and worked with the St. Jerome Catholic Church to open a satellite location. They were gracious enough to allow us to set up shop in their Boy Scout building. The community needs were so immense that we soon outgrew the confines of that small building and opened a permanent full-time location nearby in a retail strip center. That clinic has since been relocated to an even larger site and is now part of the Spring Branch Family Development Center on Pitner Road.
In 1992, I was promoted to WIC Program Director. The WIC grant was in a growth mode at that time and with the additional funding, we worked with the community to access areas with the greatest need for WIC services. Working collaboratively with the WIC Programs sponsored by the City of Houston Health Department and Harris County Public Health we were able to identify pockets throughout Harris County and set up new clinics in these areas. For approximately 10 years we opened one new clinic location after another. Generally, we opened clinics as part-time locations in community donated space. As the sites became successful, we looked to lease permanent space nearby and converted them to full-time WIC clinics. Through the help of staff in various UT departments, we scoped out potential clinic locations, reviewed real estate lease contracts, hired and trained both professional and clerical staff.
Some locations though were less successful and over the years changing demographics or economic fluctuations resulted in us having to close them. In all, we opened 13 sites over that time period. It was a very busy time in my career and not quite what a dietitian is trained to do, but I must admit I enjoyed the challenge. Quite honestly there were times when I was flying by the seat of my pants; hoping the location, the staff, and the community needs would all come together. They usually did.
When I wasn’t in my “build it and they will come” mode, I was very active (and still am) in the Texas WIC Directors association. I had one term as president of the organization and multiple committee chairmanships. I quickly learned if I wanted to have an impact on the direction of our organization and the Texas WIC Program as a whole, I need to be actively involved and on the board. I volunteered for anything. I tend to be a rather opinionated person and was happy to have to chance to share those thoughts with anyone who would listen!
What are you most proud of accomplishing?
I would say the growth of our program over the years is one of my greatest accomplishments. Back in 1985, we served approximately 3,000 women, infants, and children at one location and the San Jose satellite. We had five employees. Today we serve over 27,000 participants and have six locations. We employ approximately 55 staff. We also operate The Lactation Foundation, our breastfeeding clinic which offers the services of registered nurse lactation consultants free of charge to all moms in Harris County, regardless of income.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
When I worked in the clinic as a dietitian, I really enjoyed being able to counsel our WIC families as we educated them on the nutritional needs of their children and how to keep them healthy. It was a busy, yet fulfilling job. When I became an administrator many years ago, I realized I found my niche, managing the operations of the program was what I really enjoyed. UTHealth gave me the opportunity and support that I needed to know that this was where I felt I could do my best work.
As mentioned, I really enjoy my time working with the other Texas WIC Directors and the Texas HHSC WIC Program staff as part of my job. Most recently being a part of this group helped my staff and I get through the COVID pandemic without closing our clinics for even a day. Sharing our creative ideas and learning how technology can allow us to create a different business model permitted us to get needed foods into the homes of our clients and all of the new clients who were seeking our services for the first time.
Why have you stayed?
Hands down, because of the people I work with. Dr. Robert Yetman has happily been my boss for more years than either of us probably realize! His support has been there since day one. Anthony Garcia, our department’s DMO, is a caring man who is always there to direct me when I get lost. My own staff are fabulous caring people; from the clinic staff to the admin staff – I love them all.
When you are not at work, how do you spend your time?
Cooking is my stress reducer and my passion. I enjoy researching traditional recipes of all cultures. You can learn so much about a culture through its foods.
My husband and I enjoy gardening and traveling. Of course, COVID has put a pause on travel, but we are looking forward to our third trip to Alaska in the near future. It is an amazing place.
But the real light of my life is my grandchildren – two little granddaughters and a grandson on the way. Being able to spend time with them is a true gift.