One final hug

Published 4:24 pm Tuesday, January 30, 2024

AHOSKIE – Kim Schwartz was an unknown commodity upon first arriving in Ahoskie in 2005, hired to breathe new life into what was then a sputtering effort to place a federally qualified community health center here locally.

Famous for her infectious smile and big hugs, Kim Schwartz was the giver of both at her retirement party held Friday at RCCHC. Staff Photo by Cal Bryant

Nineteen years, five health clinics in four counties, two pharmacies, one mobile unit, a soon-to-be-opened integrated dental care facility, and $60+ million in grant funding later, Schwartz’s masterful work is done.

A retirement celebration for Schwartz was held Friday at Roanoke-Chowan Community Health Center (RCCHC). There, for nearly 90 minutes, Schwartz was overwhelmed with an abundance of kind words, funny stories, and even a few sad ones.

And in the end, she got a chance to express her deep appreciation for those locally who first accepted, and then followed the lead of a total stranger from New Mexico.

Schwartz said when she arrived in Ahoskie in 2005, she was knowledgeable in the areas of integrated primary care, how to devise a budget, and how to apply for grants.

“But I knew very little about northeastern North Carolina,” she recalled while making remarks at Friday’s event. “However, that was advantageous as it allowed me to see something from the outside. I saw the marks of loyalty, compassion, dedication, the love, the skills and the incredible need for a reliable system of comprehensive care. You finally began to believe me when I said I wished you all could see what I see. And that is what we all now know as the incredible Roanoke Chowan Community Health Center. I was just the one holding the mirror and who wouldn’t take no for an answer.

“I’m overwhelmed by your love and your kindness,” Schwartz continued, adding words of deep affection for her family and their unwavering support of her career. “I am proud and grateful for all of you that loved RCCHC into being. I know it will continue and go far beyond anything you can dream. I thank God for charging me with this assignment. Thank you for allowing me to serve the great people of northeastern North Carolina.”

Pastor Jeff Douglas of St. Thomas Episcopal Church, in his opening prayer, said that Schwartz’s work was “never a job for you. The passion and love you have for people shines through. Your powerful influence has changed this community. You have bought greater vitality to us, not only in medical terms. You turned this community’s dreams for a better life into a reality.”

Al Goddard served as the emcee of the event. He shared a few facts about RCCHC during Schwartz’s time as its founding CEO, to include growing from 59 employees in 2005 to a staff that currently numbers 257. She also orchestrated many health and wellness programs over the years.

“Anybody that knows Kim knows about her energy,” Goddard said, adding that it’s because of her that he has remained at RCCHC for 19 years.

Ahoskie Mayor Weyling White presented Schwartz with a proclamation of appreciation on behalf of the town.

“Thank you for what you have done for our community, growing RCCHC into what it is today,” White remarked. “You’ve been a friend, a mentor, and a spiritual guide.”

One of the many partnerships forged by Schwartz during her time at RCCHC was with the ECU School of Dental Medicine. That connection led ECU to site its first Community Service Learning Center adjacent to RCCHC in 2012.

“We didn’t know what to expect when we first came to Ahoskie, but we did know that to be successful we had to establish strong local relationships. That job was made easy by meeting Kim Schwartz,” said Dr. T. Robert Tempel Jr. of the ECU School of Dental Medicine. “She welcomed the dental community into the local primary care center for health. It’s been an absolute pleasure to work with her and we wish Kim well in retirement.”

Caroline Doherty, a Community Health Center consultant, first met Schwartz in 2005 when they sat down to write an application for a Federal New Access grant, the groundwork for RCCHC to begin.

“It was because of Kim that so many friendly faces I first met here in 2005 stayed on with RCCHC,” Doherty recalled. “Fifty-nine of that original staff, before RCCHC gained full status as a federally qualified community health center, bravely remained to be a part of this organization.”

Doherty added that through Schwartz’s leadership skills, two segregated medical practices, one for Blacks and the other for whites, merged.

“Nobody else had been able to do that, but Kim did,” Doherty said. “This was just one example of the many talents that Kim gracefully addressed during her term as CEO. And grace is the trait I’ve encountered the most upon working with her all these years. She has done so much to improve health in the Roanoke-Chowan area, to include improving access to care for the seasonal farm workers here in this region.”

Tonya Britt, a member of the RCCHC nursing staff, called Schwartz a “trailblazer.”

“Hearing all this today about how RCCHC got started serves as a reminder of when I first met Kim Schwartz. She was very encouraging of my career. She has done that for others, which shows her consistency. She deeply cares for others,” Britt noted.

“But to be a trailblazer, that didn’t come without trial and error or maybe getting some people upset, but I thank you for being there for us. I thank you for the open door where we could talk to you and build a relationship with you. Bless you Kim Schwartz for the mission and the vision of RCCHC,” Britt added.

Stephanie Wroten, former Chief Operating Officer who has been named as interim CEO at RCCHC, thanked Schwartz for personally preparing her for this moment in time.

The legacy of Kim Schwartz (left) at Roanoke-Chowan Community Health Center is now passed down to interim CEO Stephanie Wroten (center) and Brittany Pierce, Chief Nursing Officer. Staff Photo by Cal Bryant

“Kim exemplifies what it means to be a servant leader,” Wroten observed, “and I will follow your path. Kim, you have left a wonderful legacy here. We will move forward knowing we are strong. We are in awe for what you’ve done here. I have big shoes to fill, but I just bought some brand new boots.”

Brittany Pierce, RCCHC’s Chief Nursing Officer, recalled first being hired by Schwartz as part of the tele-health team.

“She’s one of the few CEO’s I’ve ever worked for that will greet you every day with a broad smile, a big hug, and ask you how your family is doing,” Pierce said. “She cared about us. She had a special touch.

“I’m so thankful for her leadership, her vision, and her support as they have increased access to care and helped our community since 2005,” Pierce added. “We would not be where we’re at today without Kim Schwartz.”

Dr. Julian Taylor, now retired, was part of group of doctors that came together to form Ahoskie Comprehensive Care, part of RCCHC. He recalled the uncharted waters that had to be navigated to open a federally qualified community health center locally. Two of those efforts failed, but then Kim Schwartz arrived.

“Kim has been the face of equal access primary care here and across the state and nation,” Dr. Taylor said. “Without her guidance we would not have this beautiful and functional primary care center here in Ahoskie.

“She saved primary care, as we know it, in the Roanoke-Chowan area,” Dr. Taylor continued. “She was the type of leader who did not tell you what to do, but showed you what to do and the right way to do it. She taught us there should be no barriers when it came to giving medical treatment to anyone who needed it.”

Dr. Jamande Jones spoke on behalf of longtime Ahoskie physician Dr. Colin Jones, who shared: “Thank you, Kim, for your positive outlook and energy. Thank you for being my friend as well as my boss. Enjoy your retirement.”

David Reese, President/CEO of the Foundation for Health, Leadership and Innovation, focused his comments on how Schwartz was able to successfully navigate a healthcare system where CEOs are primarily men.

“You are a trailblazer, Kim, You opened doors, you created a roadmap for other young female leaders to follow,” Reese noted. “You also overcame the challenges normally associated with rural areas. The value you placed on healthcare in rural communities is one of the attributes that outshines some of your other accomplishments. Your leadership in advocating for Medicaid expansion and articulating its impact on rural communities has been heard loud and clear. You challenged the process, you enabled others to act, and you led from the heart.”

Dr. Terry Hall of the RCCHC Board of Directors said Schwartz came to Ahoskie at just the right time.

“The [health center] seed had been planted and we needed someone to nurture it and make it grow, that person was Kim Schwartz,” Dr. Hall stated. “We also needed someone who was like a potter, a person that could mold, shape the future of RCCHC. Kim was our potter.”

Alice Pollard, Vice President of Operations and Strategy with the North Carolina Community Health Center Association, brought greetings from the other 43 community health centers statewide.

“I’ve seen you offer your help and support to a health center 400 miles away,” Pollard said. “We are better because of you.

“On a personal note, I want to say that when Kim is talking to you, you feel that she is listening and hearing exactly what you’re saying,” Pollard added. “You make everybody feel special and that they have a home here at Roanoke Chowan Community Health Center. We are confident that community healthcare is alive and well and will continue here.”

Ben Money, Senior Vice President of the National Association of Community Health Centers, closed out the list of speakers praising Schwartz’s work.

“Kim, you have meant so much to the community health center movement. You put Ahoskie on the map,” Money remarked. “I’ve learned so much from Kim. She has long given me guidance and support.

“When I first met her, I saw the passion she had, the grand vision she had,” Money continued. “She had this infectious spirit that you believed what she said was going to happen. She had that confidence in everything she did. Your persuasion, your passion, your confidence led us to new heights here locally, across our state, and on Capitol Hill. Your infectious optimism has spread to other community health centers across our country.”

Also taking part in the event were Robert Kruger, representing U.S. Congressman Don Davis, and John Tayloe, representing U.S. Senator Ted Budd. Each presented Schwartz with personal letters from the federal leaders.

Tayloe, who once served on the RCCHC Board of Directors, personally thanked Schwartz for the leadership skills and guidance she gave to make the healthcare center what it is today.

RCCHC Board member Viola Vaughan-Holland opened the retirement celebration with an official welcome to those in attendance.

Rev. Andrew Schwartz, Kim’s son, closed out the event with prayer.

After being recruited from New Mexico to lead the organization, Schwartz guided RCCHC’s growth from a Federally-Qualified Health Center lookalike in one building to its current status as an award-winning, nationally known FQHC. Part of that expansion included securing a Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) Facilities Improvement Grant of $6.2 million and additional partner funding to build 43,000 sq. ft. facility in Ahoskie expanding from 27 exam rooms to 48.

In 2022, RCCHC served over 16,000 patients from their core counties of Bertie, Gates, Hertford, Northampton, Washington, and beyond and now has a staff of over 250.

Over her 19 years at RCCHC, Schwartz was recognized locally and nationally as an expert on issues important in rural health care delivery, especially Telehealth. She testified to Congress on more than one occasion about telehealth issues. For that and many other kinds of advocacy work, Schwartz was awarded the Robert J. Greczyn, Jr. Community Health Center Leadership Award in 2013 and the Cooke MVP Advocacy Award 2010, both from the National Association of Community Health Centers.

Schwartz said she plans to retire to the western part of North Carolina where her husband, Tom, teaches at Appalachian State University.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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