• New executive director’s career built on nonprofit medical services, outreach
By Naomi Klouda
Heather O’Connor, the new executive director of Kachemak Bay Family Planning Clinic, moved into her position two weeks ago just as the town began to grapple with a number of social issues.
The Tennessee native found herself in the perfect spot. Finding positive activities for the town’s young people through the R.E.C. Center is one of the social programs she stepped in to oversee.
“Homer is a community that takes care of its own. People really do step forward to take of each other,” she said.
Her career background began 15 years ago running a group home for 12 women with developmental disabilities. The theme of helping people access better health through marketing and grant writing became her calling as she dedicated her career to nonprofit groups.
O’Connor replaces Michelle Waneka, who served the clinic 19 years before moving to Portland, Ore., where she pursues studies in Oriental medicine. Waneka built the clinic through the years by winning grants that grew the clinic’s health screenings and services. About 12 years ago, the Women’s Health Outreach was added on. Youth Services through the Resource Enrichment Coop, or REC came more recently. The clinic climbed from three part time employees in 1999 to six full-time employees in 2012. Now famed throughout the Peninsula, clients come from as far away as Kenai for cancer screening and other services provided there.
“I knew the Kachemak Bay Family Planning Clinic was special the first time I walked in. The staff, board and volunteers work hard to make it a truly warm and welcoming environment,” O’Connor said.
O’Connor relocated from Denver, Colo in October. For the past 15 years she served health and social service nonprofits through roles in development, marketing, and program management, most recently for the Dental Lifeline Network. The DLN provides free dental services for the needy.
She holds a Master’s in Social Service Administration from the University of Chicago and a Bachelor’s in Public Relations from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.
“I’ve been deeply involved in social services and health, creating better access to health care. All people have a right to safe, effective access and I’m interested in how to fill the gaps,” O’Connor said.
Growing up Jackson, Tenn., O’Connor had an unusual childhood. Both parents were stay-at-homers. Her dad worked for BP Oil from his home office. Her mother ran the house. “Just when ‘latchkey kids’ was becoming the norm, I got to go home to both parents,” she said. “I loved writing and messaging, persuasive writing and short stories.”
At the University of Tennessee, she majored in public relations in the School of Journalism, which allowed her to pursue her writing interests as well. From the sleepy south, she followed the urge to go north to Chicago for grad school after a lifetime of hearing her mother’s stories of growing up in the glamorous city. Social work was her calling on two tracks: a knowledge of the administrative side of health care delivery (Medicaid/Medicare) and management through grant writing and oversight.
“I found you lead best by understanding the front line details,” she said.
Since 2005, O’Connor has vacationed in Alaska. “I felt called to the Kenai Peninsula. It was on my life list to live here someday. I kept an eye out for opportunities.”
The directorship opened, and O’Connor applied. She spent a week in Homer with Michelle Waneka during the interview process. “Both Michelle and I thought it was a good fit. It felt like the right time, the right place and the right organization. And the beauty of the places in Homer…” she said.
The programs in place established under Waneka’s time will continue with some potential for further growth. O’Connor wants to further the mission of helping people access health care and empowering men, women and young people to make heathy choices.
“I would like to point out, our programs are open to men, too,” she said. The clinic offers sexually transmitted disease testing and vasectomy services. It will continue the Women’s Health Outreach that involves going to remote neighborhoods and meeting with women who may have transportation problems getting to a health check up. The emphasis now is on breast cancer screening. The clinic is sometimes confused with Planned Parenthood but has no affiliation with that national organization. KBFPC is funded through grants and local fundraisers. It is entirely Homer-grown.
The two-woman teams with the health outreach help clients by solving transportation and child care problems that may act as barriers to an ability to make appointments. They make contact by speaking with women in their homes.
Beside the clinic, at 3959 Ben Walters Lane, is the REC room where youth services are anchored in a building of its own.
“The mission is to help youth foster healthy relations. It’s a safe space to hang out. There they can explore topics and get access to facts. The (Promoting Health Among Teens) PHAT group meets there to lead discussions and train peers,” O’Connor said.
Arriving in Homer in the midst of a painful event, the recovery and search for solutions after a sexual assault at a teen party, O’Connor wants to help all the more through enlarging KBFP’s youth services.
“Even non-parents have a role,” she said. The REC program needs more volunteers to help with the culinary program FORK and more avenues for PHAT need to be explored. She welcomes input into the youth programs for assessing what is working and what might need adjustments. For now, O’Connor is in a learning and listening mode to find out more about community needs and desires. “I’m a sponge right now,” she said.
O’Connor is also on the outlook for volunteer opportunities of her own. Food pantry work and animal rescues have preoccupied her in the past. Willow, her dog, is a retired racing greyhound whom she rescued. She also enjoys writing short stories and will look for inspiration from the creative Homer community.
She invites people to feel free to contact her at Heather.firstname.lastname@example.org.
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