PITTSFIELD — Fresh from what he calls a "sabbatical, not a retirement," longtime public health advocate Charles "Chip" Joffe-Halpern has landed a new gig — in the executive director seat of the Berkshire Area Health Education Center.
Better known as Berkshire AHEC, located in a second-floor suite at 703 West Housatonic St., the state- and federally funded agency has a mission to educate health and human service professionals as well as community members. The agency regularly offers trainings and workshops about pressing public health issues, offers support and sponsorship for community partnerships and programs to ensure equitable community access to health care through advocacy and medical interpretation.
"One of the most important aspects of public health is access," said Joffe-Halpern, who served for 20 years as executive director of Ecu-Health Care. The private nonprofit health coverage access and advocacy program is based in North Adams and supports uninsured and underinsured Northern Berkshire residents.
Joffe-Halpern stepped down from that role at the end of August, passing the baton on to Karen Baumbach, who had been serving as Ecu-Health Care's director of programs.
"It's been 20 exciting years, and I felt it was time for a transition and a fresh look," he told The Eagle last June about his planned departure.
But in January, when Berkshire AHEC's board of directors announced a search for a part-time executive director, Joffe-Halpern, 66, says he felt he found that fresh new opportunity he was looking for. And he apparently stood out to the 11-member Berkshire AHEC board that hired him, which includes co-Presidents Lorraine Mancuso and James Wilusz, and ex-officio member Linda Cragin, program director for the Massachusetts AHEC Program based at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
"I'm lucky to continue to work with the type of organization where you can make a difference in the community in the public health field," Joffe-Halpern said of his role at Berkshire AHEC, which began last week.
"It's all important work that's done here but it flies under the radar a little bit," he said. "I hope we can make the public more aware. We have a terrific board of directors and we really do have a wonderful staff here, who are all very dedicated to what they do."
In addition to Joffe-Halpern and an administrative support member, Berkshire AHEC has four key staff members with very specific roles:
• Director of Operations Sheila Dargie has been with Berkshire AHEC for 17 years, and served for six-months as interim executive director. Joffe-Halpern credits her for her institutional expertise and leading a smooth transition of leadership.
• Silvana Kirby is the director of the Medical Interpreting Training Program, and has been with the agency for 11 years.
• Suzette Naylor has been with Berkshire AHEC for a decade and serves as the director of education.
• Michelle Richard is in her first year, serving as the regional coordinator for the AHEC National HPV Immunization Project.
"The work we do is about prevention and education," Dargie said. "It's important that the people working the front lines are well-trained."
While Berkshire AHEC is based in Pittsfield, the work of this staff extends across the state, throughout New England, across the country and in some instances, internationally. There are six AHECs in Massachusetts, and more than 220 in the national network.
Naylor leads conferences and on-site trainings for the state Department of Public Health and places like Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. In June, she'll coordinate care transition and caregiver workshops at Home Instead Senior Care in Pittsfield. Other trainings are related to the fields of mental health, food allergens and reducing community tobacco use.
"Our programs are about making a difference in the health of the public, and training the people who are making the difference in public health," Naylor said.
Richard acts as a liaison for the national campaign to increase the volume of young men and women getting HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccinations. She said the campaign aims to make these routine vaccinations, since they are meant to prevent the spread of a highly prevalent sexually transmitted infection, which is also known to cause cancer in some cases.
Kirby leads certification trainings in the bilingual field of medical interpretation. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the general field of interpreters and translators to grow 29 percent from 2014 to 2024. "It's one thing to speak another language, but it's another thing to be trained to interpret medical information properly. ... Cultural competence is important too," she said.
"Together, we're helping to increase the public awareness of the great work that's done here," Joffe-Halpern said. "We're going to try and make sure our programs are well-integrated into the community and make sure that the programs we have are meeting the needs that are there."
Contact Jenn Smith at 413-496-6239.