Andrea Parker

Executive Director, Hult Center for Healthy Living

A career of service spanning public health, nursing and the not-for-profit community

My parents are originally from Peoria, but my father’s work moved them to Joliet to live, where my older sister and I were born. We moved back to Peoria, and I started in District 150 at McKinley School as a half-day kindergartener. We lived with my maternal grandparents briefly until my parents bought our first house—my only home throughout childhood.

My parents worked hard. My father was an insurance man when going door to door selling insurance was the norm. He would be in an office setting for some portion of a workday, come home to eat dinner, and then go back out in the evenings to meet people in their homes. My mom did not return to the work world until my sister and I went to school full-time. She worked an 8-to-5 office position, which did not allow her much flexibility to attend our extracurricular activities, but she was involved regularly in the school’s PTO after hours. So, my father was the one who pinned my Brownie pin, watched me play tennis in high school, and occasionally chauffeured me to and from college.

My senior year at Manual High School was great! I was selected as the school’s Rotary attendee, when all the other high schools sent males to the weekly meeting. At that time [prior to 1989], females had not yet officially been accepted into the membership. My parents were very active in the community, and my sister and I attended all the events where they volunteered. At our church, my mother taught summer bible school, and we sang in the choir and served as ushers when age allowed. When we visited my great-grandmother’s home, where my cousins and aunts were also living, I remember watching them get ready for work. They would be so crisp in their white uniforms, hose and shoes… I loved to hear their hose make a “swish” sound as they walked.

Tell us a little about your educational background and how you got started on your career path.
During most of my high school years, I took enriched courses and even pretested prior to entering the University of Illinois, which placed me in a few accelerated courses. I remember failing my first biology exam, and when I called home to tell my parents, my mom gave me the best pep talk ever. To this day, when times get hard and I experience what I perceive as a failure, I remember what she said to me and pick myself right back up.

As a biology major, I left college after two years for personal reasons and returned home with a plan to become a nurse. I enrolled and graduated from Methodist School of Nursing, where I received the best nursing education ever. I landed my dream job as a pediatric nurse, and my desire to increase my education continued. I enrolled and graduated from the BSN program at Bradley University, swearing that I would not do grad school. I graduated from Bradley in the spring and immediately sought the master’s degree program at the UIC campus here in Peoria.

Throughout my career as a nurse, two things were consistent: continuing my education and precepting/mentoring nursing students. I graduated from the U of I Chicago College of Nursing with my acceptance into the Sigma Theta Tau nursing honors program. Through this program, I met Dr. Kathy Baldwin, who was one of my mentors.

Please share some of the highlights of your career. Why did you decide to go the administrative route in healthcare after starting as a pediatric nurse?
During my years as a floor nurse, I never thought I would like any other type of nursing except caring for children. When the hospital began to “right-size,” I lost my day shift position, but had the opportunity to select another department. I selected to go to Home Health. I’d had a glimpse of working in the community while working on my bachelor’s degree at Bradley, but this was a deeper dive, and I loved it. I learned to use my critical thinking skills with the opportunities the community setting gave me, and I learned I had to be good with my nursing skills because I was often out there alone, with no other nurse to readily consult with.

During this time, my faculty questioned my goals for a graduate nursing degree, and I was encouraged to apply for a coordinator position. I did not really have that as a plan, but after looking into it, I applied and became the clinical coordinator of Carver Family Health Center, now the Heartland Community Health Clinic. I worked for three amazing physicians and learned my first management position, and again, I loved it. The physicians thought I would be an asset to the practice if I focused my education on becoming a nurse practitioner. However, I wanted a different career in healthcare.

I wanted to be in a leadership position, to be able to influence policies and make changes to meet people’s needs, yet still touch people. I was given the opportunity to develop and implement a “community health focus,” and I became the community health director for Methodist Medical Center, which exposed me to in-school health, community clinics and talks about managed care.

Missing my role as a bedside nurse, I resigned my position with the hospital and accepted a full-time teaching position with Bradley University, which allowed me to not only mentor novice nursing students, but to keep myself engaged and learning. But after a few weeks, I was encouraged to apply for an opening at the Peoria City/County Health Department. Initially, I graciously declined, knowing I was under an employment contract for teaching, but after additional encouragement… I applied and was eventually offered the position as public health administrator.

Again, I loved my work and thought I would never leave. I thought, now I have the opportunity to not only care for the people on my unit, in my office and in my department, I get to care for the people in my county! After working there several years, it happened again. While not searching for a new position, I was invited to apply to the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH). Once again, I initially declined, but after much encouragement, I wanted to see what the position had to offer.

Tell us about that position. What were the biggest challenges you faced? Greatest accomplishments?
I went to Springfield with all intentions of declining the offer, but once I learned about the position, I was in! I resigned from the Health Department and accepted the position as a regional health officer, and the bonus: I was stationed in Peoria, despite the travel schedule. I enjoyed my time there. I had the opportunity to travel and engage in multiple projects and community health assessments, and get involved in a variety of initiatives addressing school health, children and families, communicable disease, communities with health disparities and emergency planning. As part of this role, I was appointed by the director as an administrative law judge, serving in the administrative hearing process for long-term residential care facilities throughout Illinois.

The accomplishments in the arena of public health are slow and often unnoticed, but during my time with the county and state, I worked on teams that accomplished a lot. Central Illinois is a well-known area of the state for emergency preparedness, and as result, there are great working relationships between the first responders, Red Cross and area hospitals. Smoke-free policies and other healthcare practices are saving more lives, our children breathe cleaner air, and our food and water supplies are unthinkably safe. But my greatest challenge has always been how to be a great nurse and a great wife, mother and now grandmother all at the same time—balance in my life is my greatest challenge, no matter what position I have held.

How have you contributed to the community through your role at the Hult Center for Healthy Living?
This position allows me to blend my hospital and community nursing, public health and health education experience, and serve the community at the same time. I have a new appreciation of being a not-for-profit. This segment of our community works so hard for everyone, regardless of their ability to pay. It has been difficult watching our government take away the very services that children and families need for basic survival. I look forward to positioning the Hult Center to not only grow our current programs that address behavioral and senior health, cancer and health education, but to expand our role in the community.

Please list and reflect upon your major accomplishments of recent years.
I helped establish the concept of in-school health in Peoria and Tazewell schools, anchored the first $3-million grant for the Peoria City/County Health Department to address childhood lead poisoning, developed an orientation process for IDPH regional health officers, worked on developing the Smoke Free Illinois plan, supported efforts to implement public health accreditation in Illinois, and held the position of president within the Illinois Public Health Administrators Association.

I have also received the 40 Leaders Under Forty designation, was inducted into the African American Hall of Fame in Peoria, received the Peoria Jaycees’ Outstanding Young Healthcare Professional recognition, earned state recognition for “Exceptional Achievement” while with IDPH, and most recently, was honored with the 25 Women in Leadership distinction.

What was the most pivotal point in your career?
The day I received the telephone call asking if I would be interested in applying for the public health administrator position here at our local health department. How honored I felt that the public health community considered my skillset and considered me capable of heading a large operation.

What is your leadership philosophy?
I invest time in helping others see their potential. I think a leader has the ability to surround herself with talented, capable people who work towards a common goal. I believe in sharing knowledge, encouraging education, being open and honest, and understanding that everything is not negotiable—and remember to have fun along the way.

In your opinion, what are the biggest healthcare issues facing Peorians today?
I think the biggest challenges facing healthcare in Peoria are services to address those with behavioral health needs, especially youth, as well as adult dental services. Although we have great services addressing both issues, many among these populations still go without adequate healthcare.

What is your advice to young, up-and-coming female professionals?
Work hard, be honest and trustworthy, and work at something you really enjoy doing. Learn what you are good at and know yourself very well. Know your strengths and challenges. Never forget how important each day really is: it’s not all about work. iBi

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