After seven years of local civic engagement, Liberty County Health Department Administrator Deidre Howell will begin a new journey in North Georgia at the end of the month.
In her new position as a nurse manager for the Rabun County Health Department in Clayton, Howell will return to patient care and lighten her administrative load — a move that also gives her more time to spend with her three school-age children.
“We’ve always wanted to live in the mountains … This has been a lifetime dream of mine,” Howell said. “I’ve worked in 12 different counties, and I think this is my last stop.”
Her role with the health department introduced Howell to the community, and a number of boards and organizations will be impacted by her departure.
Howell is chairwoman of the Liberty Health Planning and Family Connections boards and sits on advisory boards for the YMCA and the United Way.
She also served two years as president of the Hinesville Rotary Club, where she recently spearheaded a shoe drive that will benefit African water supplies, and is a co-founder of the Suzie Q’s, a club that supports breast cancer awareness and the fight for a cure.
The Savannah native returned to the area from metro Atlanta in 2004 to be closer to her ailing father in Tattnall County.
“I told him when I came here that I was only going to be here four years then I was moving to the mountains,” she said. Her father passed away in 2008, but Howell had become entrenched in the community by that time.
“She has a bias for action,” Hinesville Rotary Club President Jeff Ricketson said. “Things get done when she’s involved.”
Howell was the driving force in developing two federally qualified health centers, which now are called Diversity Health Center, to serve low-income and uninsured patients. Long County secured funds in 2007 and Liberty in early 2008.
“If I look back on everything that I’ve done since I’ve been here, that’s probably one of my greatest accomplishments — to give people who didn’t have access to health care access to health care,” she said.
Howell also has been the glue that holds the Suzie Q’s together.
“It would be great if somebody took over the Suzie Q’s, because that’s been synonymous with Liberty County,” she said. “You can go to Savannah, and anybody that’s involved in any kind of breast cancer activities, fundraising or education outreach, they know what Suzie Q’s are.”
The group began as a team of six women who walked together in the 2009 Savannah Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure in honor of a friend with breast cancer. Since then, they’ve hosted pink pancake suppers, the annual “Art Your Bra” contest and multiple “Books for Boobies” used-book sales.
“It’s going to take somebody local to maintain the infrastructure, but there needs to be somebody with a passion behind it, too,” she said. The group has funded cancer screenings through the health department, treatment, funerals and even celebrations to mark one members’ completion of radiation.
“In the height of the Suzie Q’s heyday, we were just a really cohesive group of women who cared about each other,” she said. “And that’s so important, because when you’re going through that … the women who have breast cancer have to worry about that for the rest of their lives.”
While Howell is hoping someone here will take the reins, she already has been in talks with a cancer survivor in Rabun who likely will help her establish a Suzie Q’s there.
Howell also worked with the Liberty County Board of Education to provide free flu shots for students this year and conducted joint emergency preparedness exercises with Fort Stewart Preventive Medicine. Collaboration between civilian and military public health has not happened anywhere else, she said.
As for how Howell’s departure affects the health department, the Coastal Health District will provide additional administrative support for the immediate future, District Director Dr. W. Douglas Skelton said.
“We will assure that all necessary health department functions are covered,” he said. “Exactly how that will look organizationally has not been decided.”
Reflecting on her service here, Skelton said Howell’s leadership and “can-do, let’s go” attitude strengthened a “good county health department into an excellent one.”
Liberty County Chamber of Commerce CEO Leah Poole, who also is a Suzie Q, said it is humbling how much Howell cares about people.
“I think that with Deidre, like a lot of Liberty County’s unsung heroes, there is so much that she did that will never be told or appreciated because she would never tell us,” Poole said. “I think that’s true of a lot of our local leadership, and it’s sad that John Q. Public will never know the sacrifices these community activists make in their personal lives just to ensure that we have a better place to live, work and play.”