Instrumental in its founding, Dr. Alison Kirby will retire Friday as medical director of The Health Center, which was started at Lincoln High School.
“Alison is the foundation of The Health Center. Since we opened in 2009, her profound caring for youth set the direction and tone that helped us nurture hope and healing in the lives of many youth,” said Stan Ledington, a founding board member and newly named executive director.
“Alison loved working at The Health Center, she liked the fact that she could take as much time as needed to get to know a student and help them sort out what they needed to do, or connect them with community resources. She repeatedly said that the many hours she volunteered seeing students at The Health Center was ‘food for her soul.’”
“Dr. Kirby is the reason The Health Center exists today and continues to have impact. So this is more about her legacy than it is her retirement,” said Renee Harms, director of clinics.
The principal of Lincoln High School in 2008 called Alison for a favor, emailed Gina Ohnstad. “He had students who couldn’t play sports because they had not had a sports physical. The principal asked Dr. Kirby if she could help.”
Alison was stunned when she asked these new student patients when they last visited a pediatrician. “Some students said they hadn’t seen a doctor in 10 years. Others couldn’t remember ever seeing a doctor,” Gina said. Alison realized as a pediatrician she only saw some of Walla Walla’s children, but there was a whole population out there not getting needed care unless it was at the ER.
She researched school-based health centers, wrote a proposal and secured a small grant for a feasibility study for such a facility in Walla Walla.
While Alison and her family biked across the nation, former executive director Holly Howard was brought on board to do the feasibility study.
Then the work began to accomplish the objective and with every roadblock, Alison asked, “How can we not work to help our youth be better cared for?”
The Health Center at Lincoln High School opened in September 2009 and Alison has been a driving force ever since, Gina said.
“Since the beginning it was her vision and passion that made The Health Center what it is today,” Gina said.
“She executed her vision in her ‘free time’ while working full-time as a pediatrician.”
She spent her days off at The Health Center and saw patients there on her lunch breaks.
“Those who have worked with Dr. Kirby at The Health Center say the key to its success was her heart, passion, understanding and connection with the kids. She knew what needed to be done as an organization to help students. She saw past just the medical side of things and knew that The Health Center needed to treat the whole person and address the tough issues students were facing in their lives,” Gina said.
“She can talk and be loving and caring. But she can also be honest and direct. Her communication and trust with the students at Lincoln High School were the thing that made us (at The Health Center) shine,” said Holly.
About 80 people from the community honored Alison for her contributions earlier this month.
“She did all the work as a volunteer — that means for no money, no benefits and more work,” Holly said at the time.
Alison “came in to the Health Center for hours and hours every week ... She spoke before groups whenever asked,” Holly said. “(Alison) was passionate, frank and on target. She wanted so much for the Health center to succeed that she sacrificed her own precious time. If The Health Center ran on a shoestring budget, Alison was the lace that tied it all together to keep us running forward.”
“I feel strongly, as do the hearts and minds of many of you, that the great ideas, efforts and vision that Alison implemented in the tiny space of the early days of the health center have grown and expanded and will continue to do so as The Health Center branches out into Walla Walla High School, and beyond.” In partnership with the Walla Walla School District, Wa-Hi’s clinic will open in August.
Stan said community support helps the center continue to serve the needs of students, from volunteer primary care providers, individual and corporate donations, funds from the 0.1 percent sales tax revenue for mental health expansion and significant grants from local family trusts and foundations.
Among the funders are Blue Mountain Community Foundation, American Association of University Women, Wildhorse foundation, Sherwood Trust, Washington Women’s Foundation, Providence St. Mary Medical Center and Walla Walla General Hospital.
Currently, The Health Center has 13 staffers, including mental health counselors, medical providers and care coordinators.
The clinics at Lincoln, Pioneer Middle School and Blue Ridge Elementary are open during school hours and staffed by a care coordinator, medical provider and mental health counselors.
What’s nearing completion for The Health Center is the new Hub on Third (Teen Center), built by Blue Mountain Action Council. The community-funded center will have a six-bed homeless youth shelter and a 20-child HeadStart/ECEAP preschool. The Health Center, Catholic Charities and Children’s Home Society are partnering in this endeavor. Stan said.
“This new facility will dramatically increase our ability to serve Lincoln school students and other community youth and children in need,” Stan said.
Alison was wont to say, “As an ethical person, if you have the power to change something, then you should. If you have the power to impact a community for the better, do it.”
She also credited many others in the community who’ve helped make the center a success.
In honor of Alison’s retirement and contributions, a tree will be planted at The Health Center. Stan said Alison’s next career is as a master gardener.
“She loves flowers and gardening and has quite a bit of talent,” he said.