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Alumna gives back to community


Dr. Helen Jackson, director of community nutrition services at the Duval County Health Department, has worked most of her career trying to improve the general health of people living in the area and she is grateful that her graduate education at UNF helped her find her purpose.


Jackson oversees such programs as the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, the Breastfeeding Education and Support Program, the Obesity Prevention Program, Medical Nutrition Therapy and other health-related public awareness campaigns. Between all of the programs and staff of 100 employees that Jackson supervises, her department reaches out to more than 175,000 of the nearly 865,000 residents of North Florida’s largest and most populous county.


“Many of today’s chronic health problems affecting the health care system — cancer, diabetes, heart disease, obesity — stem from our nutritional choices and personal habits,” she said. “We try to educate people how to make informed decisions about the healthiest foods within their budget and to reduce behaviors, like smoking that have long-term negative health consequences.”


She received her bachelor's degree from Wayne State University and a master's in nutrition from Eastern Michigan University then moved to Florida in 1989 with her husband, Joseph, a native of Jacksonville Beach. She received a master’s degree in Public Administration from UNF in 1992; a Ph.D. in the same subject later from Kennedy-Western University, and is now pursuing a master’s degree in divinity from the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta.


Public service has been a part of her life since as a child growing up in Detroit. Her father worked as a factory worker for Ford Motors and as a part-time realtor, while her mother was a high school teacher raising four children. Her parents together were active in community service through their church, and even in her teenage years, Jackson volunteered with the American Heart Association and went grocery shopping and ran errands for elderly neighbors.


Initially interested in medicine, she did a rotation in an emergency room and quickly realized it wasn’t for her.


“All that blood made me a little squeamish,” she said. “But, I felt I could still have a big impact by focusing on areas of preventive medicine, such as nutrition, and trying to make changes happen at the policy and administrative levels.”  


Jackson said her time at UNF reinforced that early dedication to community service and credits one faculty member in particular, Dr. Henry Thomas, with motivating her to pursue her master’s degree.
“Dr. Thomas was so dedicated to the course and helped me see the importance of being part of social change. He greatly impacted my life,” she said.


She also worked for a period at the Northeast Florida State Hospital in Macclenny where she became interested in administration issues affecting the 500–bed hospital. She was going to UNF at the time and was intrigued by the real–world applications of her course work.

“With the UNF courses, I began looking at practices in the hospital and working with various departments to resolve problems.”


With a background as a hospital-registered dietician, Jackson was a natural fit for the WIC program. During an internship at the City of Detroit Health Department she was responsible for increasing participation from 7,000 to 30,000 individuals, one of the accomplishments of which she is the proudest. Today, Duval County’s WIC program has a $20 million budget and assists more than 25,000 families. Jackson and the program’s goals are ambitious — to improve the lifelong health and nutrition of pregnant women, new mothers, infants and children by providing nutrition education, supplemental food and health as well as social service referrals.


She said she loves the challenge, and UNF plays a key role in helping her improve the daily health for those families served by DCHD. In addition to advocating for graduate education among her staff, Jackson’s department provides a number of internships and transformational learning opportunities to UNF students studying nutrition, nursing, public health and even marketing.


“UNF provides us with great students who help us in so many areas like community outreach and education about preventing diabetes, cancer and heart disease,” she said. “The health of our community is much improved because of the values and education instilled in them.”


Jackson’s UNF education also influenced her to become involved in a number of civic groups. Community organizations benefiting from her involvement include Hubbard House, the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society and the Jacksonville Community Council, Inc. (JCCI).


Jackson is also involved with the Women of Color Cultural Foundation, a non-profit group she helped establish in 1999. The organization addresses inequalities in health, education and economic development for women of color. Jackson helps with its annual gala to raise money for scholarships. More than $100,000 in scholarships has been awarded to students, including several attending UNF.


“Dr. Jackson’s long-term experience promoting healthy lifestyles with an emphasis on better nutrition and her commitment to education are having a major influence in our community and the lives of UNF’s students,” said Pam Chally, dean of Brooks College of Health. “She is a shining example of how higher degrees have a profound impact personally, professionally and globally.”