Longtime Community Relations Manager Laurie Odell was recognized with an ‘employee of the year’ award Friday, Oct. 16 at the Illinois Primary Health Care Association annual conference.
The association includes 48 community health centers that operate nearly 350 sites in the states of Illinois as well as Iowa and Missouri, serving 1.4 million patients annually. The award Odell received is named the Ramona Lopez Community Health Center Employee Award.
It’s named for Lopez, an employee who over 22 years at Chicago Family Health Center went from a family nurse practitioner to clinic manager, assistant director, and, finally, executive director, and who fought to assure that quality health care be a right, not a privilege, regardless of an individual’s ability to pay. Here’s a bit more about Odell, drawn from our award nomination form.
Odell found a platform at Heartland Health Centers to extend her efforts to improve public health in the community, while her relationships and hard work increased our ability to serve more patients. As she puts it: “You can have a lot of great doctors and great operations, but you cannot go far without deep roots in the community. That’s how you get buy-in and build trust.”
Born and raised in Wayne, Odell left to attend boarding school outside Washington, D.C. before going to Sarah Lawrence College at the end of the 1960s. She left college to get involved in social justice work, and in 1971 moved to Chicago’s Uptown community. Odell helped create health organizations in the area including Chicago Area Black Lung Association (to help coal miners who relocated primarily from Appalachia to Chicago’s Uptown Community), and a free health clinic. She also led the former Uptown Learning Center.
When completing her bachelor’s at Northeastern Illinois University in the 1990s, Odell connected with several Uptown community health campaigns. She got involved in educating the community about lead poisoning (at the time, 1 in 3 children in the area had high lead levels), childhood vaccines, WIC, and TB screening. She helped a peer-to-peer HIV/AIDS education program being conducted in Uptown to combat teen deaths from AIDS.
Her work led her to Dr. Cindy Mears and Lurie Children’s Hospital, who opened a school-based health center in the then-Arai Middle School. Odell, its first employee, stayed on when Arai closed and the building became Uplift High School. In 2009, Heartland Health Centers took over the clinic from Lurie and Odell became a Heartland staff member. Because of her deep roots in the community, we asked her to take on community relations in addition to continuing to serve as a patient advocate for Uplift students. Some of her major accomplishments include:
Starting and running five community advisory boards to ensure we understand and address healthcare needs and concerns of the community; Helping develop reproductive health education for school based health centers; Starting a sports medicine program at Uplift High School; and Creating a long-standing partnership with Americorps volunteers to ensure additional health education resources for our patients.
The strong ties with community groups, business leaders, and public officials across the North Side that Odell established through her many years in Uptown help fuel our growth by introducing us to her many community networks and educating them about the services we offer. She is also an effective advocate voice for our patients: if she learns someone is having trouble accessing care, she works with them and the Heartland Health Centers team to resolve all concerns.
Whether organizing meetings with community leaders, an open house for our neighbors, a back-to-school physical flyer blitz at local schools, or our holiday toy drive — Odell is always working with a deeper understanding of the importance of ensuring access to resources to those most in need.
When Odell announced in June 2019 she would scale back from full-time to a consultant role at Heartland Health Centers, state Senator Heather Steans presented Odell with a proclamation recognizing her. Steans noted of Odell: “Partnerships she developed and her advocacy on behalf of those seeking healthcare have brought access to care to thousands of local students, families and residents…. her effectiveness stems from a life-long commitment to achieving justice.