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M’Liss Jenkins: Determined advocate for ‘voiceless’

BARTLESVILLE — With more than 30 years experience with health departments in Oklahoma, and despite an unexpected career jolt, M’Liss Jenkins plans to remain a determined advocate for the “voiceless” residents of the area.

Jenkins was suddenly asked to retire last month from the Washington County Health Department, along with her supervisor, Mary Beth Murray.

“We were an amazing team. We shared a lot of the same passion and vision. I have strong faith, and I’m just looking at this as an opportunity to do some additional things that I’ve always wanted to do,” said Jenkins.

Jenkins, 57, said she and Murray were given no explanation for their early retirement other than it was a “senior level management decision.” In the meantime, William R. Pierson has been named as the acting administrative director for the local health department.

Still, Jenkins remains committed to staying involved with several of the numerous programs she helped spearhead. That includes the county’s Wellness Initiative as well as one of the area’s newest undertakings, Family Promise of Washington County, an outreach program that will provide temporary shelter to homeless children and their families through host church congregations.

Several community leaders and citizens point out that Jenkins’ many-faceted work has no doubt touched countless lives in meaningful ways.

“M’Liss is truly one of the most amazing people I have ever met. She has such a passion and compassion for our community — especially for people who are the less fortunate and struggling in our midst,” said Father Lee Stephens of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church.

“I was shocked to learn these two champions of the community were no longer with the health department. During my 10 years as the Living editor for the newspaper, they were the ‘go-to’ contacts at the health department,” said Susan Albert, who is now the Bartlesville Magazine editor. “Their dedication to improving lives is evident in all the programs they spearheaded during the years. I know M’Liss will still carry on with some of the coalitions she believes in, but I know, too, the community will be at a loss without her guidance.”

“The health department has made a huge mistake in ‘retiring’ M’Liss and her supervisor, Mary Beth Murray. The culture change and political maneuverings in that department created a significant loss to M’Liss and Mary Beth as well our community, Stephens noted.

Indeed, Jenkins has been passionate about improving the health of the county through community assessments, mobilizing community partners to get involved and addressing health disparities. She started out working with the Muskogee County Health Department 37 years ago. She then served with Osage County’s health department before moving to Bartlesville in 1986.

Among some of her biggest accomplishments, she said, was working with Murray to become involved with the pilot project Turning Point, also referred to locally as the Washington County Wellness Initiative. The program is aimed at helping enhance the health status of Oklahomans and has become a successful program statewide.

“The idea was really to transform public health infrastructure at the local level so that our community had an opportunity and had a say in what their public health needs are. Mary Beth just really liked that concept and had the vision to do this locally,” said Jenkins.

“It’s inspiring to see how it’s grown. We started with a small group of community leaders who are passionate about improving the health of their community and making their community a good place to live for everyone. That is where my heart is and that everyone deserves at least an opportunity to be happy and have a good life,” she said.

During her time with the health department, Jenkins was instrumental in expanding the effectiveness of the Washington County Wellness Initiative, established in 2004. Ten community coalitions are associated with the Wellness Initiative including those that focus on affordable housing, poverty alleviation, suicide prevention and public transportation.

She also received several recognitions for her work, including being named the county’s health department employee of the year for the state in 2005. Jenkins also has received the Human Rights Award from Church Women United, which recognizes individuals for contributions in the field of human rights.

Following the aftermath of her son’s suicide, local resident Stella Shoff said she’ll “forever be indebted to Jenkins’ tender mercy and compassion.”

“She has the ability to instill hope in the hopeless and never missed a beat when it came to altruistic service to others,” said Shoff. “Whenever I had a question about how to meet an unmet need, she was my first ‘go to’ person. … Our community has lost a jewel in our crown of leadership.”

Jody Burch, CEO and executive director of the Bartlesville Regional United Way, has also witnessed Jenkins’ compassion and care to those who need it most.

“No one has a bigger heart for people than M’Liss Jenkins. If there was a mental health, physical health or social service initiative in town, you could almost guarantee that she was a part of making it happen,” said Burch.

Jenkins said she’ll continue to be just as passionate about improving the health of the community and plans to engage as a volunteer in many of the programs she was instrumental in developing.

“As a community, you can see how well we’re doing when you look how well we treat the voiceless and how much we can give them an opportunity,” she said.

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