BRATTLEBORO — In recognition of her decades of serving others, Kathleen White will receive the first Brattleboro Area Interfaith Initiative's Unsung Hero Award on Tuesday, April 19, at noon in the Robert H. Gibson River Garden on Main Street.
A registered nurse, White has served for the past 35 years as a public health nurse for the Vermont Department of Health, working out of the Brattleboro district office.
"Kathleen perfectly exemplifies the spirit of this award: quiet and unassuming service to others, motivated by the deepest compassion and characterized by extraordinary sincerity and creativity," said Rupa Cousins, BAII chairwoman, in a press release. "We are delighted to be able to bestow this honor on such an extraordinary human being,"
"It's not just Kathleen's accomplishments that we're honoring," said Jim Levinson, another leader of BAII, in the press release. "It's that her whole life is about serving others. You can find Kathleen singing with the Oak Grove Intergenerational Chorus, performing concerts for adult day care centers and nursing homes; you can find her serving meals at the overflow shelter; and if you see her doing errands, you can be pretty sure she's arrived on foot or by bike. Kathleen does philanthropic fundraising by doing 100-mile (century) bike rides."
White, who grew up in Maryland, took a while to find her niche. After high school, she went to Florida Southern College for two years in the liberal arts program, but like many adolescents, she wasn't sure what she wanted to do. She was ready for something else.
"I worked one summer in my dad's office in Maryland," White said. "He was an accountant. The work was so boring. My mother was a nurse and had worked on a maternity unit, and she came home happy. I thought, I like the idea of helping people, and I like to travel, so if I have to work for a living, I want something that will let me go anywhere. And nursing seemed to be that. I thought I could explore some volunteering for a nonprofit in another country."
White attended community college, taking the science courses that would let her apply to a nursing program. After she had completed two semesters, she and her sister decided to travel around Europe for six months with two friends, "picking grapes in France, going to Switzerland, Greece, the island of Corfu, and Turkey." Upon her return, White finished a third semester at community college and transferred to the University of Maryland's nursing program, receiving her bachelors degree in the science of nursing in May 1975.
"My last semester of nursing school, we had a whole semester's rotation in public health," she said. "I made home visits. It was inner-city Baltimore. I remember one pregnant teenager, probably about 15 years old. I walked from the health department office to her house. I didn't know how she would feel about me, but it was my job to help her have a healthy pregnancy. I remember one day she took my hand and put it on her belly so I could feel her baby move, and I thought, 'I guess she trusts me. We've made friends.'"
After graduating from college, White worked that summer as a nurse at a summer camp, traveled in the fall, then worked for nine months in a medical surgical unit at a hospital in Takoma Park, Md.
Then White was ready "not to live at home anymore. I had a brother in Gainesville, Fla., so I worked in the adolescent unit in a teaching hospital. There were lots of kids with serious illnesses. I thought about going into oncology."
During her time in Gainesville, White met three other nurses who had worked at Farm and Wilderness camp in Vermont.
"They told me, 'You would love this camp. You've got to come,' so in the summer of 1978, I shared the nursing position at Farm and Wilderness," White said. "I fell in love with the place. I stayed on, joining the work crews that fall, winter and spring. Taking care of farm animals — cows, goats, sheep, pigs, chickens; getting into milking; making cheese, yoghurt, and bread; sugaring; living in that beautiful valley; all of it was a good introduction to Vermont. It convinced me."
White worked as a counselor at Farm and Wilderness the next summer, then lived off campus and worked in Rutland Hospital's maternity unit, "just like mom," she said. Her third summer, she worked again as a Farm and Wilderness counselor, then applied for a position with the Vermont Department of Health as a public health nurse.
"During the interview," she said, "they asked me, 'Can you commit to staying for two years?' and I said, 'No. How do I know I'll like the job?' I started there in January 1981."
For some time, White had thought about becoming a nurse practitioner with a focus on women's health. In 1993 she entered the nurse practitioner program at UMass/Amherst, working part-time at the health department and attending school part-time, graduating in 1996 with a Master's degree. Starting in winter 1997, she also worked part-time at Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, first in the Claremont, N.H., office, then in Springfield, and finally in Brattleboro from 2002 to 2007.
The responsibilities of public health nursing have changed over the years.
"There used to be a lot of home visiting," White said. "We did a lot of one-on-one direct care with pregnant women, also checking on newborns and providing post-partum care. We were the doctors' eyes and ears. Now the Visiting Nurses Association does that."
White noted other services that her agency provided, including well-child clinics because back then, "a lot of kids were not insured. We did vaccinations, screenings for developmental delays, health counseling about nutrition, potty-training, sleeping, anything of concern to the parent."
One constant has been the WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) program, White said, adding, "It's been a mainstay. The Vermont Health Department makes this program happen in our area. Children from birth to age five, and pregnant and post-partum women receive supplemental food and nutritional education."
Since 2008, White has focused her work on chronic disease prevention.
"Three behaviors lead to four diseases that cause 54 percent of the deaths in Vermont," she said. "Those behaviors are physical inactivity, poor nutrition, and tobacco use. My work also has to do with helping our communities provide opportunities for routine physical activity. Working with wonderful community partners, I'm promoting walking and biking, and making it safer to do so. We try to make the healthier choice the easier choice where people work, learn, live, and play. I want people to have healthy lifestyles, to engage in physical activity and to eat good food."
White will retire in mid-May from her position at the Vermont Health Department.
"It's hard to stop," she said. "What I'm doing with the health department is such a good fit with who I am, I don't want to let go. But I'm glad it feels hard to leave."
Nancy A. Olson is a regular contributor to the Reformer. She can be reached at email@example.com.