By Ben McNeely
Gina Goff’s office was full of boxes on Wednesday.
On Thursday, she would walk out of the Cabarrus Health Alliance as a retired health educator and community advocate.
In her 30 years at the public health agency, Goff has seen a lot of changes come to the community. But there are some things that never change.
Access to health care is still a challenge for many people. Transportation to and from the doctor is still a challenge.
But Goff, 52, made those challenges a lot easier for Cabarrus residents.
“Few people are irreplaceable,” said Health Director Fred Pilkington, “and Gina comes as close to irreplaceable as you can be.”
Goff, as a health educator and as executive director of Healthy Cabarrus for the past 10 years, has been instrumental behind many of the public health services offered today in Cabarrus County — some that are not found in other counties and some that we take for granted.
Take access to dental care.
“We have fewer dentists per our population in the county,” Pilkington said. “Gina worked with the dental society in the county and we started the dental clinic for children.”
That dental clinic started in a back room in the health alliance building, with three chairs.
Now, the health alliance has a new dental clinic in The Village in Concord — the space donated to the health alliance by First Assembly for free. And there is a mobile dental bus that travels to all the schools in Cabarrus County to give check-ups to schoolchildren.
“That’s a good symbol to see a faith-based commitment to public health,” Pilkington said. “That’s not something you see every day.”
Pilkington said he attributes that success to Goff and her “inspired way of approaching a problem.”
Goff started work at the Cabarrus County Health Department as a health educator in October 1978.
“When I first came, health educators did a lot of in-house, one-on-one education,” Goff said. “We would focus on community health and we organized a health fair.”
Goff organized a wellness program for county employees. She said those efforts, which went away for a while, are now coming back through HMOs and companies seeing the benefits of a wellness program.
“It’s all come full circle,” Goff said.
But Goff said her best work came through Healthy Cabarrus — where she brought more than 40 local agencies together to work on shared community problems. The Cabarrus County Needs Assessment, a quadrennial report that highlights the continuing social challenges in the community, has become Goff’s brainchild and her legacy to the community.
Announced in September, the 2008 Needs Assessment Report showed a “growing gap” among the community and in every facet of social services — in health care, in jobs, in education. Goff said the report should be a “call to action” for the community to step up and meet the problems Cabarrus County is facing.
“We as a community have needs to address that perhaps we weren’t as fully aware of as we are now,” Goff said in September. “The way these needs coexist and affect each other may not have been fully realized.”
The needs assessment effort just furthered Cabarrus County’s reputation for being one of the best models for public health in the country, said health alliance board chairman Charles Phillips.
“North Carolina was the first state to adopt the community partners model. We’ve been doing it for 16 years now,” Phillips said.
And Goff has led the effort every step of the way.
“The needs assessment is Gina’s baby,” said Dianne Snyder, chancellor of Cabarrus College of Health Services and chairwoman of the Healthy Cabarrus advisory board. “She was a cheerleader for the project. She was the type of person that could bring a team together.”
It’s through the needs assessment that the dental clinics have evolved from and the CK Rider program as well.
For her work with Healthy Cabarrus, Goff won the Mary Bobbitt-Cooke Healthy Carolinians Award this year. Phillips said it was an honor for her and the state as a whole.
“North Carolina is still first, still the best,” Phillips said, “and for Gina to be recognized for this, in a way she is the best in the nation.”
But for Goff, she said she feels like it is time for her to go, for someone new to take over Healthy Cabarrus and to make a mark on a new, ever-changing community. A new person will be hired to follow her, but public health leaders know it will be difficult to replace her.
“It’ll be nice to relax a bit,” Goff said. “And I want to spend more time with my parents.”
Her children are in college and graduate school, so traveling to see them isn’t out of the question, either, she said.
But there will be a hole in the health alliance, at least for a short time.
“I’m just glad Gina is still in the community and we know her phone number,” Snyder said.
• Contact reporter Ben McNeely: 704-789-9131.