40 Under 40 in Public Health: Environmental Health Innovators

The de Beaumont Foundation created 40 Under 40 in Public Health to recognize leaders whose creativity and innovation are strengthening communities across the country. Of the 40 honorees, 14 work for local health departments, with two focusing on environmental health: Jessica Gehle of Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department (WA) and Jacqualyn (Jackie) Littlepage of Lake County Public Health Agency (CO).

Read more about the bold solutions that landed these environmental health leaders on the list:

Jessica Gehle, MPH, Environmental Health Division Director, Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department

There is a common thread through Jessica Gehle’s six years and three promotions at Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department. No matter what she’s working on, life gets easier for her customers.

Jessica is the Environmental Health Division Director at her agency. She earned her place with a laser focus on customer service, community engagement, and quality improvement. These same attributes also recently earned her a spot on the de Beaumont Foundation’s prestigious 40 Under 40 in Public Health list.

“Our job is to protect and improve the health of all people and places in Pierce County,” Jessica said. “If we’re not removing barriers for our customers, we’re not doing our job.”

Jessica joined the health department in 2013 as clinic supervisor in the Sexually Transmitted Infections and HIV program and soon moved up to Program Manager. She quickly noticed that some of the processes were clunky. Working with her team, she helped transform a paper-based system into an electronic records system. She also expanded clinic hours, allowing people to come in at night if they needed.

The result? More chances for customers to get help, and an easier process once they arrive.

Jessica’s roles were elevated several times in the next three years. She became Assistant Division Director in Environmental Health, then Division Director. Customers in her new division quickly benefited from Jessica’s focus on their experience and belief in building partnerships.

Securing permits for septic systems and wells can be time-consuming. Customers didn’t enjoy traveling between different agencies during the process. The health department worked with Pierce County Planning and Public Works to solve the problem. Jessica’s division transferred additional staff members to a county building across town. They work alongside county planners, engineers and biologists, creating one-stop shopping for permits. Jessica is also supporting a revamp of the permit review process, making life easier for everyone involved.

“Leadership is planting seeds, then trusting your talented staff members to grow them,” Jessica said.

Innovative thinkers like Jessica do the important work of connecting public health with the people who need it most. Just as importantly, she works to inspire people around her to reimagine how they work. She also looks for meaningful partnerships, even when they’re not traditional.

“Jessica is a great example of one person’s light growing to shine on a whole community,” said Deputy Director Nancy Sutton.

Jessica started her public service career at Washington State Department of Health in the Sexually Transmitted Disease Prevention program. She earned her Bachelor of Science in biology from DePaul University and Master of Public Health from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Jackie Littlepage BS, REHS, CP-FS, Director of Environmental Health/Health Inspector, Lake County Public Health Agency

Jackie Littlepage was hired by Lake County Public Health Agency as Director of Environmental Health in September 2012. This was a new position, and she was asked to develop several rural agency environmental programs, including inspection and licensing of retail food, schools and childcare centers, onsite wastewater treatment systems (OWTS), waste tire, and emergency preparedness. She was also tasked with promoting healthy homes through the reduction of radon and blood lead and improvement of air quality.

She spent many hours going from restaurant to restaurant, getting to know the owners, managers and staff, as well as special event food coordinators and food vendors, many of whom come to Lake County from towns many miles away. She listened to their concerns and needs and then made every effort to ensure the retail food program being built would best fit the community’s needs.

Jackie took a similar approach when creating an OWTS/septic system regulation and permitting program, reaching out to engineers who design systems, contractors who build systems, pumpers who clean and inspect systems, and homeowners and realtors who must deal with issues of failing and repairing systems. After listening to the community’s needs, she reached out to state and other local environmental health agencies to find model programs and practices to present to Lake County stakeholders for feedback.

She also collaborated with a local nonprofit organization, Cloud City Conservation Center, to implement free radon testing for residents. Since hosting a radon 101 roundtable training to kick off the new program, they have expanded the program to test all the local schools according to required standards, and they have created valuable reports for the community to promote mitigation efforts.

“I enjoy being a strong rural public health and environmental voice representing at local, state and federal meetings,” said Jackie. “I work closely with state and federal agency partners to ensure the rural Colorado issues are heard and taken into consideration when creating policy and program solutions.”

Jackie takes the time to promote environmental health by attending community events, writing letters to the editor and guest columns in the local newspaper, and participating in local planning committees to ensure environmental health is considered in a variety of local matters.

In 2015, Jackie was recognized for her efforts by the Colorado Environmental Health Association’s Environmental Achievement Award for outstanding service in the field of environmental health. Since then, she has been working on creating a multi-county environmental health partnership to develop opportunities to share program resources and collaborate on solutions to problems that affect communities across political borders. Also, she is advocating for the creation of regional Colorado environmental health strike teams to be better prepared for disasters in rural communities where resources are limited.

“It is an honor to be recognized nationally as a 40 under 40 leader who has shown environmental health is public health, and that community health is more than just healthcare,” Jackie said. “I have and will continue to work tirelessly as a local leader making rural communities healthier in Colorado.”

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