Public Health

An Open Letter to Don Flowers

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“It’s good to be blessed. It’s better to be a blessing.” – anonymous

More than 20 years ago, in the early 1990s, conversations were taking place among a few committed citizens in South Carolina - all concerned with the high teen birth rate in the state. As the stories have been told to me, this was a small group. A very small group. Maybe six people at the most. Joy Campbell, who would ultimately become the founding executive director of the South Carolina Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy (SC Campaign), had called everyone together.

Notably, the group included a Baptist minister from Greenville...Don Flowers.

Somewhere along the way, Don – in a fit of weakness – agreed to become the first board chair of the SC Campaign, circa 1994. Data from the state health department reminds us that in that year, nearly 9,000 young women in South Carolina under the age of 20 became mothers.

Fast forward 20+ years to 2017 where the data shows there were 3,696 births to teen mothers in our state. A decline that exceeds 60%! Find me another public health issue that has seen such remarkable progress over the last two decades… there aren’t many! Don Flowers is truly one of a very few who can say he has been involved with the organization and the effort since day one. Literally, from the first meeting. As he and his wife pack a moving van today to head off to their next adventure north of the border (that's the US border, Nova Scotia to be exact), I hope he has time to read this note, because it wouldn’t be right to let him pull away without an appropriate THANK YOU!

Don will deflect any credit for this massive success story, but I’m not willing to let him.

Had the teen birth rate in our state not changed at all since 1994, think of the 10's of thousands of lives that would have lived out a different trajectory. It is not a stretch at all to say that Don’s willingness to say yes, his willingness to give his time and energy to this cause, resulted in improvements in the lives of thousands of young people – many of whom are now adults. After all, how often does one have the opportunity to reflect and know that the time and work you put in had such a direct and profound impact on thousands of other people?

Don will deflect any credit for this massive success story, but I’m not willing to let him.

There have been countless staff members, board members, and volunteers who have contributed notably to the work of the SC Campaign. They all deserve thanks and praise. But, none have exceeded Don’s tenure – as a board member, as a board chair (twice), a mentor, a thought leader, and a voice for change. None of them, none of us, have done as much as Don has done. Don likes to say that when he served as board chair the first time you could “put everyone in the state who was concerned about this issue in a phone booth.” By the time Don’s second term as board chair began in July 2007, just a few months after a young 20-something-year-old kid had taken over the role of executive director, the organization was hosting statewide conferences for 300+ people every year and reaching thousands more through training, education, and outreach. At some point in between his multiple stints as chair of the board, Don and his family moved to Charleston. That in and of itself opened many doors for me and the organization that wouldn’t have been opened otherwise – “…how bad can we be, our board chair is a Baptist minister from Charleston, SC!”

Don will deflect any credit for this massive success story, but I’m not willing to let him.

You’ve probably guessed who the 20-something-year-old kid was, and this is where the story takes a bit of a personal turn. The relationship that Don and I have formed over the last 10-plus years, beginning with that organizational transition in 2007 (even though we had met and interacted some several years before) is more special than words could ever explain. Don has been there for me personally and professionally, without hesitation, any time that I needed him to be – even times that I didn’t know I needed him to be. Don has been a friend, a mentor, a side-kick, a confidant, a voice of reason, a spiritual support, and so much more. He has been by my side, quite literally, through the highest of my highs and the lowest of my lows.

  • Need someone to talk through a big decision with… call Don.

  • Find out a family member or loved one is ill, or having surgery, or battling cancer… call Don.

  • Getting married… call Don and fly him to New York to officiate the ceremony.

  • Need a reality check, someone to put you in your place… “Forrest, Don is on line one.”

  • Need someone to lift you up in prayer… call Don.

  • Just want to vent a little bit… call Don.

  • Syracuse beats Wake Forest in (insert sport)… call Don.

There are times that people come into your life and when you take the time to look back and reflect, you know you wouldn’t be who you are today without them. That is true of Don’s involvement with the SC Campaign. More importantly, that is true of Don’s involvement with me. I honestly don’t know where I would be today without his guidance, wisdom, support, tough love, and occasional stubbornness.

Don will deflect credit for the role he has played in my personal success story too, but I’m not willing to let him.

I drove down to Charleston yesterday to say, “see you around.” I’m comforted knowing Don will still be no more than a phone call away (wait, they do have phones in Nova Scotia, right?), and I’m glad that I was able to give him a big hug yesterday before he left town. But, the blessings Don has given me, given the SC Campaign, and given to this entire state are just too incredible to keep to myself.

Godspeed, my friend. You are indeed a blessing! 

Costa Rica Reflections

The following was a letter sent from Dr. Heather Brandt to students and colleagues at the University of South Carolina regarding her experience in Costa Rica for the Global USC in Costa Rica program.

Greetings! I have returned physically from Costa Rica back to South Carolina, but my mind and thoughts and heart continue to be in Costa Rica. I am processing my experience, and I am somewhat reluctant to write about it at this time because I know my thinking will evolve. However, I am equally excited to share with you some of the lessons I learned during my time in Costa Rica. 

I arrived in San José on May 14 for Global USC in Costa Rica (for those of you who have not had a chance to read my last chair’s email – this is the University of South Carolina), and I was in Costa Rica until June 6 for the program. This program provides students a unique opportunity to gain USC course credits while learning about health and culture in San José and across the country. Health-related courses are instructed by USC faculty (including me!). During this program, students have the chance to explore San José and immerse themselves in Costa Rican culture.

I had three USC undergraduate students, all public health majors, in my class – “Community Health Problems” (which I renamed, “Community Health Solutions” because communities are not a problem and solutions are in communities). Class went exceptionally well and was complemented by incredible service learning experiences. In fact, I said several times, “Community health class can be cancelled for the rest of the program because there is no way I can replicate what you are experiencing firsthand in the community in the classroom.” We experienced the Costa Rican Humanitarian Foundation in La Carpio, Hogar de Carlos Maria Ulloa (nursing home), Hogar de la Esperanza (a home for people living with HIV), and all three levels of the Costa Rican health care system and a private hospital as well. “Community” was all around us. Public health was evident throughout our entire program. Important community and public health lessons were learned in the community, not the classroom. We did a lot of listening while we learned. I am grateful for the generosity of these organizations and their willingness to host us.

I have attempted to summarize my experience around three salient points. 

First, community is defined in many ways. At Hogar de la Esperanza, we learned about a community for individuals who have HIV come to embrace life and live theirs. This is a diverse community in terms of country of origin, sexual orientation and preferences, and status, which is highly unique as there are only three such homes for people living with HIV in Costa Rica. Our idea of what constitutes “community” is not for us to determine, and often, a community of which you become a part happens organically. We witnessed similar communities of care in the local, area-level health care clinic in Cartago that is the first-level of care in the Costa Rican health care system, called EBAIS in Costa Rica. ETAPS who work within the EBAIS are tasked with improving the overall health of the community by working with people in the community. A strong sense of solidarity within the community, defined geographically by the organization of the EBAIS, was apparent. 

Second, when working with a community to improve health, meet them where they are. We have to ensure basic needs are met before we can focus on other needs. While in La Carpio, we heard from Gail “Giselle” Nystrom of the Costa Rican Humanitarian Foundation who shared with us their approach and how important it is to meet basic needs while always increasing self-esteem of those they serve. Our public health education and health promotion interventions must align with opportunities within a community and not focus on impractical approaches that are inconsistent with where they are. This was further evident in the EBAIS in Cartago. We witnessed a primary care physician committed to ensuring programming so that every child receiving care in the clinic had the chance to succeed. She implemented a play therapy program to aid children with development delays. The ETAPS ensure that these children are living in environments that will support their success. 

Third, solutions are truly found in the community. At La Carpio, Hogar Carlos Maria Ulloa, Hogar de la Esperanza, and across our visits to learn about the Costa Rican health care system, solutions were all around us in these communities. Solutions were initiated from within the community with minimal help from those outside – perhaps financial or other resources, expertise, etc. The resiliency and solidarity of Costa Ricans was inspiring, and solutions emerged from within the community. 

Mixed in with lifetime lessons, classroom time, and service learning experiences, we had a lot of fun too. We toured the city of San José, visited the National Museum of Costa Rica, travelled to Doka Coffee Estates and La Paz Waterfalls, ate “comida típica” (typical food) in Costa Rica, which is gallo pinto or rice and beans, visited Manuel Antonio National Park, and much more. Personally, I was captivated by the monkeys, sloths, and the vistas. 

In closing, as we face ongoing challenges to ensuring a strong public health system, focus on prevention, health equity, and access to health care in the U.S., I am struck by a common theme that emerged in our interactions with Costa Ricans. At Hospital Heredia (a regional hospital in the Costa Rican system), we had the chance to talk with hospital administrators and ask them questions. Someone asked if health care was viewed as a right or a privilege in Costa Rica. Without hesitation, the response was, "health care is a right, not a privilege, in Costa Rica." I believe this reflects the strong sense of solidarity I experienced in my interactions with Costa Ricans. Sure, the health care system is not perfect, but it is based on a fundamental belief that everyone is entitled to health care. “Pura vida” is more than a catchphrase or nuanced tourist lingo. Costa Ricans live pura vida. 

Heather Brandt
Chair, Public Health Education and Health Promotion Section
American Public Health Association

Look for the Helpers

We are barely three weeks into 2017 and what a year it has been already. I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect when Heather and I launched our consulting firm late in 2016, but it has, so far, been a journey like no other I’ve ever been on.

In a short time, our work has taken us across South Carolina and across the country.

  • On one of our projects, we’ve spent time reading, listening to residents, asking questions of the experts, and trying to better understand the challenges and barriers that exist to health and well-being in rural South Carolina. The challenges are real, significant, and deep-rooted.

  • Our team is back and forth weekly to Charlotte, NC working with a group of funders and philanthropists to develop a system of change that presents greater opportunity for the citizens of Mecklenburg County. Certainly not rural America, but the metro has its own challenges.

  • We are preparing to lead a board/staff retreat next week for a statewide nonprofit who is poised and ready to tackle the significant challenge of affordable, reliable housing in South Carolina.

  • Our travels have also taken us to Waco, TX, Tulsa, OK, and Washington, DC. All unique communities with their own challenges centered around race, poverty, and access to health, education, and financial resources.

What’s striking to me is that despite differences in size, region of the country, and demographics, the challenges in these communities are all very similar. From rural South Carolina, to metro-Charlotte, to the “heart of Texas;” all different communities with familiar challenges.

What’s even more striking is the massive number of helpers we have come into contact with. Without exception, one of the first things I notice when visiting a new community is that the helpers are already in place! So many kind and caring souls giving their all, dedicating financial resources and human capital to the causes that matter.

It was Mr. Rogers who reminded us that “when (you) see scary things… look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

Indeed.

Having recently celebrated a “day of service” in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it’s fitting to point out how many helpers there are among us. It’s also not lost on me that we are mere hours away from the Inauguration of the 45th President of the United States. To be sure, with so much uncertainty in front of us, those helpers will be more important than ever. So, my message to you today and in the days ahead is two-fold:

If you need help, whatever that means to you, please don’t be ashamed to reach out. If you are a helper, please don’t be afraid to stand up and make yourself available! 

Forrest Alton Elected to My Carolina Board of Governors

My Carolina Alumni Association has elected Forrest L. Alton to its Board of Governors. Alton represents the second congressional district of Columbia, South Carolina.

The board of governors is the governing body of the University of South Carolina’s alumni association, a 501(c)(3) charitable organization established in 1846. The board promotes fellowship among the university’s graduates, establishes policies, provides strategic direction and holds fiduciary responsibility for the assets of My Carolina.

"Any success I have had in my career is due in large part to the education, networks, friends, and colleagues I gained during my time at the University of South Carolina,” Alton said. “I see this appointment to My Carolina’s Board of Governors as an opportunity to 'pay it forward' and give back to the University and its alumni that have done so much for me.”

Alton has been involved in public health and youth development efforts for more than 15 years. In 2007, he became the chief executive officer of the SC Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, a position he held for nearly 10 years. Under Alton’s leadership the organization saw substantial growth. Forrest recently launched a consulting firm, 1000 Feathers, which works helps nonprofits, philanthropists and social service organizations have greater impact in the communities they serve.

In 2010, Alton was recognized by The State newspaper as one of South Carolina’s “20-under-40 emerging leaders.”  In 2014, he was recognized by The Free Times as one of the “50 Most Influential People in Columbia.”  He is a Riley Institute Diversity Fellow, a Liberty Fellow and part of the Aspen Global Leadership Network.

Alton earned his master of public health from the university’s Arnold School of Public Health. In 2011, the school named him its Alumnus of the Year. He earned his bachelor of science from Coastal Carolina University, where he also was named a Distinguished Alumnus.

About My Carolina
My Carolina Alumni Association’s mission is to build a thriving community of actively engaged and connected alumni, students, faculty and supporters who give themselves in service to the university while carrying the Carolina tradition and spirit worldwide. For more information about My Carolina Alumni Association, visit www.MyCarolina.org.

President Forrest Alton Featured in Tulsa World

During a recent visit to Tulsa, OK to work with the Tulsa Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, our President Forrest Alton had the opportunity to sit down with a reporter from Tulsa World to discuss progress made in South Carolina and what Tulsa can do to better address teen pregnancy. Several things he made very clear: 1) the solutions are in the community and 2) teen pregnancy prevention is not a moral issue; it's a public health issue. 

Read the full article here.