Pittsboro, NC – It didn’t take Central Carolina Community College graduate Dorothy Rawleigh long to establish herself as one of the state’s top public health educators, though it was hardly a lifelong goal. In fact, when she started to chart her career, it wasn’t even on the map. But after just six years as Childcare Health Consultant for Chatham County Public Health Department, her reputation has spread well beyond the locals.
First came recognition from the GlaxoSmithKline Foundation as recipient of their 2018 Child Health Recognition Award, an honor presented annually to innovative organizations and individuals for improving the lives of children. What earned Rawleigh the accolade was her work to enhance nutrition and boost immunization rates in local child care centers.
According to the foundation’s news release announcing her award, Rawleigh helped increase the proportion of child care facilities filing an annual immunization report from 62 to 100 percent and, more importantly, the number of centers with all children up-to-date on their vaccinations from 25 to 96 percent. Now, virtually all children in the centers are vaccinated, which is critical, since 95 percent is the magic number to prevent disease outbreaks. “Dorothy is viewed as a model public health professional and an inspiration to all who work with her, and those who benefit the most are the children being cared for,” the release said.
Then came appreciation from her own colleagues as their 2020 Employee of the Year, an award presented by the Chatham County Board of Health for Rawleigh’s “tireless efforts to keep Chatham’s youngest residents healthy.”
Interim Public Health Director Mike Zelek, who has worked with Rawleigh for six years and served as her supervisor for about half of that time, has nothing but good things to say. He describes her as approachable, well trained and “incredibly dedicated” to a job that covers a lot of ground — everything from immunizations to healthy food access to physical activity to training designed to prevent Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. “You name it, she does it with child care facilities,” Zelek says. “It’s a big ask of one position, but Dorothy not only does what’s asked of her, she constantly works with childcare facilities to ensure Chatham’s youngest residents grow and develop in healthy environments.”
Journey to Public Health
All of the accolades must be pretty heady stuff for someone who swerved fairly recently from environmental work into public health. Ready for something beyond the classroom after her high school graduation, the Julian native hit the road. She worked food service and as a nanny, cleaned office buildings, taught outdoor skills as a school counselor in Black Mountain and did some farm work. She even spent five seasons as a wilderness ranger in the Mount Baker–Snoqualmie National Forest, 140 sprawling miles along the Cascades’s western slope between Seattle, Washington, and Vancouver, British Columbia, where she would hike into the wilderness for 10 days at a time to develop trails framed by glacier-covered peaks. It all makes for an intriguing and eclectic resume, but none of it exactly screams public health.
When she decided it was time for school again, she made the trip back home and began looking for somewhere to combine her interests. The Sustainable Agriculture Program at Central Carolina Community College’s campus in Pittsboro seemed like a good option, so that’s where she began, later studying in the honors program at Durham Technical Community College before receiving her Associate in Science degree from CCCC eight years ago.
When Rawleigh was looking at educational options, community college was mainly a practical decision. It didn’t cost too much, which meant she could graduate without loans. The smaller campus and class sizes also were attractive, especially for someone who spent so much of her time working deep in the wilderness. Now, she describes herself as a strong advocate for community college.
“I think a lot of young people feel pressure to attend larger and well known universities, but if they aren’t focused on what they want to get out of the academic experience, it doesn’t really matter,” she says. “You get back what you are willing to put into it.”
The big question still remains: For someone who began community college by studying sustainable agriculture, how exactly did that whole public health detour take place?
Turns out, it was a combination of opportunity and some life experiences she had on her journey. Rawleigh discovered a bachelor’s degree program at UNC Greensboro that offered a fast track to become a public health educator and prepare for the Certified Health Education Specialist exam, a credential that helped get her foot in the door for jobs that are especially competitive in this region. And then there were those personal experiences. “I’ve had experiences when I didn’t have access to health care, and that impact on my life made things really difficult,” she says. “I could get a job with that degree and start doing fulfilling work. When people have access to healthy options and health care, that’s empowering.”
It Takes a Team
Ask her colleagues about Rawleigh and the praise flows freely, though you don’t get far down that road with anyone — Rawleigh included — before hearing about “the team.” Public health might not strike some outsiders as a team pursuit, but it is. Rawleigh constantly mentions the “health promotion and policy team” while describing how information she gathers in the field is shaped into policy and systemic changes to improve the health of people well beyond the groups she works with directly.
And then there are teams formed with other organizations across the community. One of her favorite projects is helping child care centers plant vegetable gardens. It’s an initiative she conducts with the Chatham County Partnership for Children that is funded by a Farm to Early Care and Education grant offered through the NC State Center for Environmental Farming Systems.
Creating the raised-bed gardens and caring for plants obviously helps children learn new skills and gives them a sense of accomplishment. But it does much more. It teaches children where their food comes from and how plants grow. It provides healthy food for child care centers. And it can even give staff members their own moment of discovery. “They’ll say, ‘Dorothy, I didn’t know the squash flower turned into the squash!’” Rawleigh says. “What an awesome experience for the teacher. Many times when you approach child care about a new program, if they’re not interested in changing a practice, then it’s not an appropriate program. But they are genuinely excited to do this.”
Given so many interests, the obvious question is where Rawleigh may be headed next. When she was attending CCCC, her biology instructor and advisor, Dr. Amy Kennedy, saw her student’s intense curiosity and thought she might end up studying environmental science, perhaps combining research and advocacy. It seems like that could be one possible direction.
Rawleigh wants to head back to the classroom one more time for a master’s degree to get more technical skills in biology and maybe take some courses in environmental policy, applying some of her recent experience in public health. But who knows? “Sometimes, it seems like there are too many choices,” she admits. “But I love my work at the health department. I’m not in a rush.”