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Health worker's zeal: educate

With what her supervisor calls "personality-plus,'' Erica Holback will take her message of healthy living to anyone, any time.

By JOY DAVIS-PLATT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 7, 2002

BROOKSVILLE -- From health fairs to baby showers, Erica Holback will go anywhere to get the word out about the Hernando Health Department.

At 26, Holback is the department's senior health educator and one of its youngest employees.

"I mainly just want to let people know that we're here," said Holback, who came to the Health Department fresh out of college a year and a half ago. "I want to dispel some of the negative feelings people might have about the Health Department. We want to be the people's doctor."

When she graduated with a master's degree in public health from Florida A&M University two years ago, Holback admits, she did not know exactly what she planned to do. But an Internet job search led the young graduate from her native Jacksonville to Hernando County.

When she was hired, it was her credentials that got her noticed. But Holback's supervisor, Kathy Sauskojus, said it was her personality that won over interviewers.

"Everyone was really excited about her," said Sauskojus. "What set her apart from the other candidates was her wonderful combination of professionalism with warmth. That had a lot to do with it."

Sitting in her office among her Mickey Mouse collectibles and endless file boxes, Holback remembered hearing about the job in Hernando.

"I wasn't even really sure where Brooksville was," she said. "My mom and I were looking at a map of the Panhandle."

But before long, Holback had settled into her new home.

"I thought, "Somebody's giving me a chance,' " said Holback, who had internships at the Florida Department of Health in Tallahassee and Hughes Spalding Children's Hospital in Atlanta. "It was so exciting for me. It still is."

While she continues to find her niche, Holback is creating information programs to teach the public about topics as diverse as breast-feeding, diabetes and the West Nile virus.

Hernando County's diverse population makes for an interesting challenge, she said.

"It all depends on the audience," she said. "We try to target the material we use to the audience we're expecting."

For older audiences, that might mean information on diabetes, glaucoma or chronic diseases. At events such as the recent World's Largest Baby Shower, topics leaned toward breast-feeding and secondhand smoke.

Since coming to the department, Holback has worked to partner with churches and other faith-based organizations as well as the Hernando County Jail to reach audiences that might otherwise go untapped.

"We're not marketing a product, we're marketing a behavioral change," she said. "So there is no market that's not "our market.' There is always something you can talk about."

Almost as important as the message is how it is delivered. From display boards and pamphlets to bingo games, sometimes the more outrageous an idea the better it works. And no place is safe. The department's restrooms are outfitted with what Holback calls "restroom reading," information about the health benefits of switching to low-fat milk.

"Hey, whatever it takes," she said with a laugh.

In that spirit, Holback recently became the host of a local cable television show called Healthy Hernando on Time Warner Channel 19. The 15 episodes so far have dealt with topics including cholesterol, diabetes and "The Joy of Soy."

"It's a lot of fun," Holback said. "I think people can get a lot out of something like that."

Besides the skills needed to do her job, Holback's outgoing personality makes her right for the position said Sauskojus, a health educator consultant for the department.

"Erica's got personality-plus," she said. "She's able to work with a variety of people across departments and across the community. She's got it together."

Until she runs out of ideas, Holback said, she will continue to find new ways to reach audiences in Hernando County about health topics that affect them.

"This gives me a chance to use my creativity," she said. "It's like I've got a family here now."

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