After 37 years of working to keep McLennan County healthy, Sherry Williams is officially retiring.
The director of the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District started out as a public health nurse in 1982. She said while her role has changed just as much as the role of the public health district itself, she has always loved her line of work.
“I see some of the clients that I took care of today, and they say, ‘You’re still at the health department? My baby is 30 years old!’,” Williams said. “They remember, and that makes me feel good.”
Williams, the first black woman to hold the director position, knew she wanted to be a nurse since she was a high school student.
“I know it was God leading me to do the things I needed to do, but also the things I wanted to do,” Williams said. “My mother always told us, ‘You know you’re going to have to work, because we’re not rich. You might as well find something you like to do.’ So we have.”
She said her mother, Bennie Clay, raised her and her siblings alone, but still found time to start food pantries and other projects to support her community. Three of her siblings went on to be social workers, and two others are nurses as well.
“She cared about her community, she cared about her neighbors,” Williams said. “We always saw that in her, so all of us have gone down the road of service to a community. We saw that, and it just permeated our being.”
When she first became a public health nurse, the district offered prenatal care, child health care and home health care along with the tuberculosis treatment and immunizations it offers today. In the late 80s, they incorporated HIV testing, prevention and education.
“I really enjoyed taking care of the patients and clients,” Williams said. “I think we gave some of the best care in the city, because we took the time to talk to them, listen to them and work with them.”
However, Medicaid requirements changed in 2000, and the district shifted its focus to other services, hiring its first epidemiologist in 2001 and starting a new health education program soon after. Williams was promoted to director of nurses, a role she held until she became director of the district.
“I have seen so many nurses come through and have enjoyed working with the staff, and even just seeing the changes in how we provide those public health services,” Williams said.
Janet Emerson, a previous director, took her under her wing, inviting Williams to sit in on meetings and planning sessions. Williams served as interim director for six months before she was permanently hired seven years ago.
Today, the needs of Waco and McLennan County are different than they were when Williams started. The district works with Prosper Waco, a collaborative initiative to address chronic disease, obesity, access to care, women’s health and mental health.
“We realize that we cannot do this work alone,” Williams said. “We only have like 83 people, and we cannot do everything for everybody. We’re trying to bring in other voices to hear what they think is important and how we as a community can address those issues.”
Nursing Division Program Manager Margaret Cowart said Williams saw the health district through countless changes and challenges as a director.
“She’s able to figure out what the health department needed to do to continue to serve the community,” Cowart said. “There wasn’t exactly books on how to do that.”
HIV-STD-Lab Program Manager Laurel Churchman described Williams as someone who leads by example and is always looking to innovate where she can.
“We could have stayed still and stagnant, but she did push us along and out of our comfort zone,” Churchman said. “We’re going to miss her a lot.”
Carol Davis, a deputy regional director with the Texas Department of State Health Services, presented Williams with a letter during a retirement party Friday thanking her for her public health service.
“She’s led the health district through so many things, from disease outbreaks to leading the response to the explosion in West,” Davis said. “She was very supportive of Public Health Region Seven staff.”