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Championing community engagement: Sally Hurst’s journey to empower rural West Virginia communities

“Seize the moment!” These three words sum up Sally Hurst’s career journey that spans over 30 years and reflects a diverse foundation of experience. Early on, the executive director of Greenbrier County Health Alliance and director of outreach and community engagement for West Virginia School of Osteopathic  Medicine (WVSOM) recognized the benefits of supporting rural communities. By nurturing resiliency and confidence, building on the strengths that already exist and following an inclusive approach, mobilizing healthy action from within rural communities became possible.

Early Days

Hurst’s career started in 1981 working at the New River Health Association where she gained incredible outreach experience as a community health worker in an early childhood home visiting program. The Maternal Infant Health Outreach Program (MIHOW) organized women to reach out to other women and built on the strengths of rural communities. Not only did this role put Hurst’s skills to good use, it also solidified her decision to consider this career route.

“As a young mother and MIHOW home-visitor, I experienced what life is like for rural families by going into the homes of many living with limited resources and education,” Hurst said. “I witnessed how a little information, encouragement, and support could light up young parents and change the way they looked at their parenting role. Parents want what’s best for their children, but their love alone is not enough. My experience with MIHOW taught me what an honor it is to work with people, where they live, in a respectful way.”

By documenting a portfolio of undergraduate credits, life experiences, and many MIHOW training hours in early childhood development and outreach methods, Hurst earned a non-traditional Bachelor of Arts Board of Regents Degree (RBA) from West Virginia Institute of Technology in 1991.  With these formative lessons etched in her mind, she spent the next two decades working closely with Appalachian leaders in rural health outreach, gaining evidence-based experience in the fields of early childhood development, adolescent health, and healthy aging. Hurst then became certified as top level trainer in Community Self-Management Programs from Stanford University, and she became proficient in grant writing through training from the Grantsmanship Center in California.  In 2014, she joined the WVSOM Center for Rural and Community Health, a position supported by the WVCTSI Community Engagement and Outreach Core. 

Tips for Engaging Communities

Throughout Hurst’s different professional roles, one thread stands out – her relentless commitment to empower leadership in isolated communities. The WVSOM Community Ambassador Program is one of the projects she led that encapsulates the essence of engaging rural communities to improve health outcomes.

“Through this program, it was our role to inspire others to work towards their vision,” she said. “The support we provided was consistent with our words. When we concentrate on what is important to each community, we can give people confidence and encouragement to deal with difficult issues.”

Hurst also emphasizes that while many community-engaged research projects arrive eager to contribute and help rural communities, their expectations often meet an incongruent reality. According to the seasoned expert, the impact of an academic and grassroots partnership can be enormous, it only needs to counter the “one approach fits all” notion and evade a common misconception.

“Rural people are not sitting around waiting for someone to come and tell them what they need to do to be healthy,” Hurst said. “It takes time to develop relationships and build trust.  It requires going into communities, listening, and working towards respectful understanding of people’s lives.  Every community is different, and assumptions made can easily become barriers to partnership development.”

Advice for Young Professionals

Since community roles have long been misunderstood as positions “merely” requiring social skills and the ability to interact, we asked Hurst about the skills needed to succeed in this field.  She started by elaborating on the concepts of engagement and outreach for what they entail and how they directly inform a set of roles and responsibilities. For instance, the word engagement sends a message of inclusion. It indicates you’re a part of a long-term process and dictates your exchanges with others. 

Outreach is equally essential for connecting people to healthcare and services. It helps to deliver evidence-based information and minimizes communication gaps among researchers and the public. The key for a young professional to excel in both rests on cultivating a mindset of empowerment and adopting a humble approach, especially when socioeconomic disparities come into play. Case in point: The success story of Greenbrier County Health Alliance, a non-profit organization made up of diverse and passionate people and organizations working together to reduce health disparities across Greenbrier County.

“Many communities are not organized and do not have a voice or take action on their own behalf,” she said. “Building inclusion and giving a voice to isolated communities became our goal at the Greenbrier County Health Alliance (GCHA).  Focusing on embedding intentional development of self-efficacy into our leadership style is the heart of GCHA’s success.”

Pillars of Community Engagement

Another realistic dimension Hurst brings to the community engagement framework focuses on the pace and sustainability of the process and the value of effective partnerships.

“Community engagement is a slow and continuous process of working collaboratively with community groups and individuals to address issues that impact their well-being,” Hurst said. “It is also important to be able to well represent the story of your work through grant writing and have the ability to connect the community needs with funders who are interested in supporting community development work. WVSOM has made good use of the West Virginia Clinical and Translational Science Institute’s support through the Community Engagement and Outreach Core to invest in building trust and deep relationships within communities. We have a countywide network of engaged grassroots, individuals and organizations willing to work together. The WVSOM Clingman Center for Community Engagement is another unique cross sector partnership developing a community gathering space, and once the pandemic subsides, will have great potential for medical students to interact with the community.”

Distinguished by an unwavering dedication to rural communities in West Virginia, Hurst’s creative contributions and organizational work to the betterment of community health recently received an honorable recognition. In October 2020, she was awarded the WV Rural Health Association Excellence in Rural Health award. 

“I’m honored on behalf of all our partners in Greenbrier County,” she said. “This award is a testament to the good work and related projects that dramatically improved health outcomes, especially the health of people in need.”

Key Takeaways

Hurst’s lasting lessons from her long-standing career center on integrating local wisdom and scientific evidence into systems and initiatives that address health disparities, issues of shared power, inclusion, equity, and that promote social justice.

“It is important that community wisdom and science work together and learn from each other,” Hurst said. “WVCTSI and WVSOM have set the stage in Greenbrier County for meaningful community research. Support from WVCTSI has played a key role in the development of the Greenbrier County Health Alliance, the Clingman Center, the Community Ambassador Program, the Marvel Early Childhood Learning Center, and in the development of our engaged network.”

What’s Next

Asked about her future plans, Hurst said she is transitioning towards her retirement. After some strategic planning, she will continue to work one day a week for the next year to provide support for WVSOM and the Greenbrier County Health Alliance to sustain community engagement work.