At the same time 11-year-old Charlene McGee and her family left their homeland of Liberia in the midst of a civil war, 8-year-old Olivia Quiroz left Mexico City with hers – three sisters, three brothers and her parents.
Charlene would make her way to Portland, and Olivia to The Dalles, where her father was a farm worker. Whether it was those experiences or something more at play, both felt strong connections to family and community and an overwhelming desire to serve and to make the world better for future generations.
When they arrived at Oregon State University in the early 2000s, they felt the void left by far-flung family and community.
Charlene’s father picked her up every weekend – until the day he gently encouraged her to look for spaces and opportunities to connect with others. In other words, to find community. Olivia found hers in the Centro Cultural César Chávez, which soon became her home away from home.
“I care about students of color, and it was a place to explore social justice, identity and values,” she says. “My experience there was great. I met a few students of color in pubic health, and we worked together to get through classwork such as anatomy and physiology.”
After graduation in 2005 with a degree in Public Health/Health Promotion and Health Behavior, Olivia took a job as a patient navigator at a volunteer-run medical clinic offering free health care. Most patients were Latino; nearly all were uninsured. Although she liked working in a clinical environment, she soon realized that for many patients, care came too late. And her thoughts turned to prevention and her public health education.
From there, she joined the Multnomah County Health Department (MCHD), in the Adolescent Sexual Health Program, and talked about healthy relationships, HIV and STIs – all taboo in the Latino community – and later transitioned into a health policy position. It was there she would reconnect with her old friend from Oregon State, Charlene McGee.
A work of heart
Charlene made her way to the MCHD after graduating in 2004 with a bachelor’s degree in Public Health/Health Promotion and Health Behavior. At the department, she served as the African American Sexual Health Equity Program and HIV/HEP C Health Educator from 2006-2010. She also served as a commissioner for the City of Portland Human Rights Commission and president of the Portland NAACP Branch. At 24, when she took that position, she was the youngest ever president of an NAACP Branch.
She then visited Liberia and ended up volunteering – a common theme in the life of Charlene McGee. If there’s a need, she meets it.
And Liberia needed her.
“They were speaking to my heart,” she says. “I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to make Liberia better.”
The opportunity was the nexus for Charlene. It allowed her to serve Liberia, put her public health degree to work, acquire professional skills and work in global philanthropy.
She stayed in the position, working for Liberia’s first female president, for one year. During that time, she worked to manage the donations of high-profile donors such as Bill Gates and addressed issues such as water sanitation, church and community, the environment and community health.
Once again, she left Liberia as it was being torn apart, this time by Ebola. She flew out on August 3 with her 6-year-old son. “I cried all the way from Liberia to London.”
She planned to return, but learned she couldn’t take her son. So she stayed.
Teamwork leads to dreamwork
Charlene returned to the MCHD in 2015, where both she and Olivia are working on health department accreditation and creating a community health improvement plan with community partners and the Oregon Health Equity Alliance, which is leading the process. Both are determining the strengths and needs of five racial and ethnic populations in the county and identifying key recommendations to create change.
“It’s long-term work,” Olivia says. “It’s exciting to know we’re working for a bigger cause – not just for ourselves, but the community and nation. If we’re going to be better, we need to be healthy. And we need to prepare our youth.”
“My hope is my son’s generation doesn’t have to deal with what I’ve had to,” Charlene says. “If I can use my energy to help, it’s worthwhile.”
Olivia, who thought she would be a nurse – as did Charlene – says she is finding her passion as a senior policy analyst working to create systems and policy changes to eliminate health inequities and disparities.
Charlene, deputy refugee health coordinator and senior program specialist, is working to ensure refugees receive care, which means working with clinics, local and federal government, resettlement agencies and refugees themselves. It’s complicated but compassionate work screening these new residents, which totaled 1,326 last year in Multnomah County alone.
“I’m coordinating care for a system not ready for it,” she says, adding that refugees are coming from all over the world.”
Regardless, “People are asking, and there’s a need,” she says.
“If a community asks for something you can’t give them, are you really doing public health?”
The big question is how to change the system to address those needs. And for Charlene and Olivia, change isn’t happening fast enough. But they know they will get there – and that they’re not alone. As Charlene says, “Teamwork leads to dreamwork.”
Despite the slow pace of change, she’s steadfastly working to make it better. She volunteers in her church and for numerous community organizations, as well as the OSU Alumni Association, where she and Olivia serve on its committee on inclusion and diversity.
“Charlene and Olivia play a critical role in helping alumni reconnect with each other and become re-engaged with the university,” says Suzanne Phillips, alumni diversity coordinator and regional network director. “What I love about Charlene, Olivia and the rest of the committee is their pay-it-forward mentality. Each person wants to know how they can support a current student so they know that they are resilient and that alumni care about their success on-campus and off.”
“I love OSU,” says Olivia, who recently spoke twice on campus on topics related to women of color and Latinos. “It was my launching pad, where I learned about social justice and disparities. It’s preparation for the real world, and I am a bridge. I feel like I’m living my dream.”
“I think everybody should have a public health degree,” Charlene says. “Everything is public health – from traffic lights to recycling to education to managing emergencies. I love my degree, and I think it’s very transferable. No regrets.”
Advice to students: Home is where you make it
Charlene: “Be open to experiences. Try new jobs. Don’t limit yourself. I never thought I would work for the president of Liberia!”
Olivia: “Get involved in any capacity to enhance your experience. It will help get you into a professional field.”