Initiated by the USF College of Public Health in 1988, Florida Outstanding Woman in Public Health nominations are solicited from public health practitioners across the state. The COPH bestows the award each year to a woman whose career accomplishments and leadership contribute significantly to the field of public health in Florida.
“It’s extraordinary to see the nominations we receive,” said COPH Dean Donna Petersen. “They come from all over the state, from different agencies and different disciplines. It’s always a difficult choice. This year three extraordinary women were nominated. And since none of us could agree and they are all deserving of the honor, we decided there was no reason not to recognize all three of them.”
Honored during the COPH’s Virtual Annual National Public Health Week Awards Ceremony, the 2020 award recipients were Sarah Combs, Melanie Hall and Dr. Deanna Wathington.
“Public health is inherently interdisciplinary and driven by a multitude of factors. What sets Sarah Combs apart as a leader is that she is doing work on the whole system, from land-use and financing to the actual building of new homes. She builds community through the development of community parks and gardens, all in partnerships with hundreds of local non-profits and governments. The result is that she is effectively lifting the health status of the residents of the university community, an area that has struggled mightily for decades and is plagued by deep seated, wicked problems,” said USF College of Arts and Sciences Dean Eric Eisenberg.
CEO of the University Area Community Development Corporation (UACDC), Combs joined the organization in 2010 and under her leadership the group has more than tripled the number of children and adults it reaches with education, health, workforce, cultural arts and other programs.
With more than 16 years of experience in the nonprofit sector, Combs’ experience spans nearly every facet of organization planning from program development to real estate. She is an active member and volunteer in the Tampa Bay community, serving on the following boards: Safe & Sound Hillsborough, Innovation Place, Commission on the Status of Women, Mort Elementary Community School, Chairwomen of the Florida Alliance of CDC’s and the Tampa Bay Community Reinvestment Association.
“Sarah Combs makes everyone she interacts with a believer, convincing the residents that they have the ability to enhance their health, living condition and general well-being with the UACDC as a catalyst in the process,” said Gene Marshall, retired senior vice president of JPMorgan Chase. “Combs is the perfect candidate for this prestigious award as a fearless champion of the University Area residents, empowering them with the essential tools to attain better jobs, health and futures for their children.”
Melanie Hall brings more than 25 years of expertise in children’s health to complement her role as the founding and current executive director of the Family Healthcare Foundation.
The foundation was founded in 2011 when Florida discontinued the funding for the Kidcare outreach programs, and a group of community leaders met to consider a means to maintain the efforts of enrolling children in public healthcare in the Tampa Bay area.
“Over the past 20 years in working with Hall, she has demonstrated traits of an extraordinary leader. She has always been ahead of her time. I have observed the amount of influence she commands whenever she is involved in a meeting or discussion. She exemplifies the highest standards of integrity, empathy and dedicated service to her colleagues and the public,” said Douglas Holt, director of the Florida Department of Health-Hillsborough County.
Hall began her career in a clinical setting in children’s hospitals and, through that experience, developed a passion for children’s health and connecting families to coverage. Along with writing curricula, she has developed prevention programming, created innovative outreach strategies and led one of the most successful child advocacy programs in the country.
In her role as director of advocacy for a children’s hospital, Hall has also worked to help pass legislation that positively affects children’s well-being. Understanding that addressing public policy is crucial to creating broad-based change, Hall has provided advocacy leadership at the state and federal level.
“Melanie has always, in her advancement of sound children’s public policy, zeroed in on the experience and outcomes of the individual. While she is steeped in relevant legislation, regulation and statute,” said Keri Eisenbeis, vice president of government and community relations at BayCare Health System. “She is most persuasive because she takes the time and effort to know the circumstances of the children and families affected.”
“Dr. Wathington is a seasoned public health practitioner with decades of experience and she continues to engage in several community health initiatives to improve the health status and decrease health disparities in communities in Florida. She encourages transdisciplinary collaborations by engaging local and national community health leaders to bring essential services to the most vulnerable communities in Florida,” said Dr. Matlida Johnson, assistant professor of public health and health equity and program director of nutrition for the Petrock College of Health Sciences at Bethune-Cookman University.
Dr. Deanna Wathington is the executive dean of the Petrock College of Health Sciences and the dean of the School of Graduate Studies at Bethune-Cookman University. She previously served as the associate dean for the Office of Academic and Student Affairs and the director of the Public Health Practice Program at the USF COPH. She is a member of the Florida Public Health Association and has served as director of minority health for the Florida Department of Health. She has also served as the associate dean for academic enrichment at the USF College of Medicine, where she provided instruction across all four years of the curriculum and maintained a busy family medicine practice.
She brings over 30 years of experience in the field including service on multiple boards, panels and workgroups with emphasis on collaboration across multiple sectors to address community health, women’s health, health equity and advocacy.
“Dr. Wathington encourages everyone she may encounter, motivating her staff and making students her top priority. Her hard work in public health can be seen in the publications that she has done, the grants that she has obtained but most importantly the students whose lives she has helped change,” said Brittney Harris, ORISE Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Health Communication Fellow.
Story by Caitlin Keough, USF College of Public Health