Life Experience Shaped New Director Dawn Emerick’s Vision for the Health Department

Dawn Emerick
Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Before she was a public health administrator, Dawn Emerick was first a recipient of public health services.

Benton County’s new Health Department director grew up in Prince George’s County, Maryland. Her parents worked multiple jobs to make ends meet. Her family didn’t have the means to own a car or dream beyond just getting by.

“We were public transportation people,” Emerick said.

She recalled how her plans to go to college defied a classism that exists within poverty. She wanted to become a nurse. But her family didn’t support her. In her neighborhood, young people were encouraged to learn a trade that could get them a stable job, like cosmetology, welding or mechanics.

“Do you think you’re better than us?” she was asked before setting out on her own.

Emerick married young and had her first two children. She put herself through college, earning a degree in health education. She was working in public health, while at the same time still relying on those essential public services.

That shaped her vision of what public health can be.

“My life experience set the course for me,” she said.

And she’s still paying it forward.

“I never want to lose that part,” Emerick said. “I want the Health Department to have a role in ensuring the wellbeing of the whole community.”

As Health Department Director, Emerick oversees population-centered health services for the county, including programs such as food safety, emergency preparedness and the mental health division. Benton County Health Department, together with primary care-focused Community Health Centers, form a collaborative partnership known as Benton Health Services. The model seeks to improve health outcomes through engaged communities and blended services.

Emerick has spent her entire career in public health. She has a master’s in public administration in health care and a doctor of education degree in leadership and social marketing. She is pursuing a master’s in population health management.

Emerick served as public health director in Clackamas County after her family relocated to Oregon three years ago. She and her husband searched for a place to relocate after their youngest son finished high school.

Portland was on the short list of possibilities. Denver had topped that list until they made a trip to the Oregon Coast.

Evidence of the deciding factor – a framed portrait taken at Cannon Beach – now hangs alongside a favorite picture of her first grandchild in her new office at the Sunset Building in Southwest Corvallis.

Since joining Benton County in March, Emerick has begun an assessment of six areas of focus. Her evaluation includes the use of technology and evidence-based practices, solution-oriented research and policies, quality and cost-effectiveness, workforce development and how services are delivered.

“I want to see how staff and our families are engaged,” she said.

She and staff plan to present their recommendations to the County Administrator and Board of Commissioners in August.

After settling in, Emerick said she looks forward to meeting with the leaders from the business and education community. She was involved with Rotary when she worked at Clackamas County, and this is her first time living in a college town.

Emerick described her leadership style as curious, but also patient. She likes to look at processes first, then make decisions. Emerick is not afraid to ask, do we want to do something different?

“I’m not a stay-the-course person,” she said. “I’m a change agent.”