Rachel Willard

Rachel Willard

A new director of the Wilkes County Health Department and chief executive officer of the Wilkes Community Health Center has been named to replace Ann Absher when Absher retires from the positions on Jan. 31, 2019.

Rachel Willard’s promotion is effective Feb. 1, 2019, stated a health department press release. As the health department’s director of allied health services since 2015 and deputy director of the community health center since 2017, Willard has led multiple community health initiatives.

Absher said the Wilkes County Board of Health approved Willard as the new health department director and the Wilkes Community Health Center Board approved her as the new CEO of the community health center. Both decisions were unanimous.

The actions came after a six-member selection committee (three from each board) recommended Willard for the positions out of five applicants.

Wilkes County Manager John Yates approved a salary of $85,000 for Willard with the promotion, said Absher, adding that Yates was acting on behalf of the Wilkes County commissioners. She will oversee a department now with 67 employees.

Absher has been director of the Wilkes Health Department since 2011. Prior to that, she had been director of nursing and quality improvement coordinator for the health department since 2002.

The press release said Willard will work alongside Absher until the change occurs to help ensure a smooth transition.

Like Absher, Willard will be responsible for health department and community health center overall operations. This includes planning, organizing, implementing, directing, evaluating and providing leadership for environmental health, health and diabetes education and the women, infants and children program and other programs and clinics.

She will also work with both boards and other entities and individuals in the community to promote health, prevent disease and protect the environment, the press release said.

"I am very passionate about public health and I see this as an opportunity to help improve health in our community," Willard said, adding that key issues locally include obesity, substance abuse, mental health, teaching resiliency from a young age and discouraging usage of tobacco products.

Willard began her employment with the Wilkes Health Department as health promotion coordinator and after six months assumed responsibility for the WIC and diabetes programs as director of allied health services. She became deputy director of the Wilkes Community Health Center when it was created with the awarding of a Federal Qualified Health Center Grant in 2017.

Prior to starting at the Wilkes Health Department, she worked for the Boone-based Appalachian District Health Department as a healthy eating and active living educator, with an emphasis on improving access to fresh fruits and vegetables, “walkability” and active transport in a 10-county area.

She has undergraduate and master’s of science degrees in public health, both from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Willard is originally from Newton and lives in the Mount Pleasant community with her husband, David Willard, and their 2-year-old daughter.

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