The Public Health Achievement Awards annually recognize local innovators and contributors to the overall public health of St. Louis County residents.

Normally, the award recognizes a recipient in April.

That wasn’t possible in 2020, a year in which St. Louis County Public Health was overcome by the pandemic.

Three recipients were finally awarded during an online broadcast Tuesday of the St. Louis County Board meeting.

“We were determined to bring recognition of Public Health Week to you all before the end of 2020,” Amy Westbrook, St. Louis County Public Health division director, told commissioners. “It’s a really great opportunity to recognize the work so many are doing across St. Louis County with the aim of improving public health.”

Newsletter signup for email alerts

All three selections were deserving, Westbrook said, and taken from a strong group of nominations.

“It was a difficult selection process, so we decided to recognize three,” Westbrook said.

First, Rachel Doherty and Barbara Hinsz were honored for managing the Mesabi East Environmental Center in the city of Aurora — delivering fresh foods to students, while also educating them in sustainable practices.

Rachel Doherty (left) and Barbara Hinsz were awarded Public Health Achievement Awards for addressing food desert conditions in Aurora after the city lost its grocery store in 2018. (Submitted photo)
Rachel Doherty (left) and Barbara Hinsz were awarded Public Health Achievement Awards for addressing food desert conditions in Aurora after the city lost its grocery store in 2018. (Submitted photo)

Dr. Jennifer Jones and Dr. Jordan Blessing were awarded for expanding services, respect and much-needed attention to children of abuse.

The South St. Louis County Veterans Treatment Court was recognized for turning around the lives of U.S. service veterans who get in trouble with the law.

“If I counted right we’re up to 19 state, federal and local agencies that play a part (in the veterans court),” Sixth Judicial District Judge Dale Harris told the board as he received the Public Health Achievement Award. “They’re the folks doing the heavy lifting. It’s an incredibly talented and dedicated group of individuals.”

To date, seven veterans have graduated from the court, and 16 are active participants. The county is home to 16,000 U.S. service veterans.

The veterans treatment court offers an intensive program for veterans working to stay out of incarceration, addressing mental health and substance abuse along the way. The first iteration of the specialty court began in 2008, and was revisited by Judge Harris in 2014.

Harris said anecdotally he believes the veterans court has “significantly reduced the number of jail days, new offenses, emergency room visits, overdoses and suicide attempts” among veterans in the county.

For the doctors, Jones and Blessing, their work assisting county child protection workers is what gained the public health department’s attention.

Dr. Jennifer Jones
Dr. Jennifer Jones
Dr. Jordan Blessing
Dr. Jordan Blessing

Hospital response times to assess children involved in a sensitive investigation used to be six hours at local hospitals. Thanks to Jones and Blessing, those children are now met immediately at local hospitals to undergo a trauma-informed physical.

The two doctors have also brought mandatory reporter training to doctors in residency. Mandatory reporters are people in positions of care and authority who are bound by law to report abuse.

“I think we both find the work we’re able to do very rewarding and enjoy the collaborations that come with it,” Blessing said to the County Board on Tuesday.

“One of the things I appreciate is how different organizations in Duluth come together,” Jones added.

Finally, Doherty and Hinsz’s Mesabi East Environmental Education Center took flight after the city of Aurora lost its grocery store in 2018. The next nearest store was 6 miles away, and the town became an instant food desert.

Enter Doherty and Hinsz. Their effort, dubbed ME3C, brought a salad bar to the secondary school, and put fresh food into school lunches. Along with Mesabi East Schools in Aurora, it purchased a shuttered greenhouse which now allows students and residents to explore agriculture, hydroponics and microgreens.

The group also operates a farmer’s market and provides students with hands-on job training.

“It’s actually been a work of pure pleasure,” Doherty told the board. “It has allowed us to really bring forth students who are as dedicated to the program as we are.”

Westbrook said the pandemic brought the value of a good public health system into full view.

"Over the past year, the value of a strong public health system has been at the forefront of our country, state and local communities in leading the pandemic response," Westbrook said, on her way to acknowledging the community-wide efforts at the heart of the county's Public Health Achievement Awards. "Local Public Health acknowledges the vital contribution that individuals and organizations play in creating health in our communities."