Blending public health and education

By Laura Williams-Tracy

RALEIGH, N.C. — Kay James calls public health and public education the two chambers of her heart.

Don’t ask her to pick a favorite cause among the two, because she’ll take on the good fight for either with equal gusto.

A 30-year veteran of nonprofit management, James was recently named executive director of the Eastern North Carolina district for The National Kidney Foundation of North Carolina, an organization with more than 3,500 volunteers who advocate for the detection, prevention and treatment of diseases of the kidneys and urinary tract.

A native of the Mississippi Delta, James began her career as a speech pathologist in the public schools of Oktibbha County, Miss.

Her work helping the school system develop its kindergarten program caught the eye of local nonprofit and business leaders who tapped her just a year later to lead the local chapter of the United Way.

“It became clear to me that there are other ways to provide input than direct services,” says James. “I was leveraging myself. Instead of 16 students that I had a direct relationship with, I knew I was impacting thousands of people.”

Over the course of the next eight years, James continued to gain management skills in Mississippi and then with the Durham, N.C., affiliate of United Way.

In the late 1980s, James took on the role of executive director of the Eastern North Carolina chapter of the March of Dimes, launching 12 years of work that resulted in a reduction in the incidence of birth defects in the state.

“At that time North Carolina had the highest rate of neural tube defects and nearly the highest infant mortality rates,” says James, now the grandmother of three.

Along with Dr. Thomas Sadler of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, James embarked on a seven-year campaign to educate women of child-bearing age about the benefits of receiving folic acid in their diets to prevent birth defects such as spina bifida.

At the same time, she helped establish a statewide birth-defects registry.

During a two-year period when the folic-acid campaign focused on intervention in Western North Carolina, the incidence of neural-tube defects there fell by 67 percent, she says.

Kay James

Title: Executive director, Eastern North Carolina district, National Kidney Foundation of North Carolina, Raleigh

Education: B.S., 1974, Speech Pathology, Mississippi University for Women, Columbus, Miss.; graduate work at Mississippi State University; Nonprofit Management Series, United Way of America

Hometown: Starkville, Miss.

Boards: Gov. Mike Easley’s N.C. Task Force on After School Programs; Gov. Hunt and Gov. Martin’s Commission on the Reduction of Infant Mortality

Favorite vacation: To family place at North Myrtle Beach in the fall or early spring

Hobbies: Decorating and spending time with three grandchildren

“Rarely in public health do you have the opportunity to establish a baseline and have intervention so you can see if it is working or not,” says James.

Clearly, it was working, and the national Centers for Disease Control recognized the program as the best sustained communications campaign across the country battling neural tube defects.

In 2001, James returned to the world of public education, joining the Durham Public Education Network to raise money to supplement services, recruit teachers and build equity among schools.

“I’ve found that just one major initiative can change the way an organization communicates with the community,” says James.

This year, James has again turned her attention back to public health, taking on the cause of kidney disease and the public health threat it poses.

“One out of nine people in North Carolina has kidney disease or is at high risk,” says James, noting that figure includes young children, who are already developing diabetes, hypertension and obesity because of poor lifestyle choices.

James hopes to build awareness about the urgency of better diet and lifestyle to prevent many major kidney problems, and perhaps develop a statewide registry for kidney disease, so that the illness may be better tracked and targeted.

“Public health and public education are so fused,” says James. “Many times the same people are at risk in public health are also at risk in public education. In order to live fully, we need to have an educated, healthy and active population.”

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