Tahlequah Daily Press

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August 30, 2010

Building relationships

Linda Axley has dedicated her 30-year career with area health departments to helping others.

TAHLEQUAH — When Linda Axley came to Tahlequah to complete her college internship in 1980, she never dreamed she would stay here.

“I grew up in Tulsa,” said Axley. “Of course I’d been to Tahlequah to visit and had floated the Illinois River several times, but I never thought I’d want to live in a little bitty town. But after I got here, I loved it.”

Not only did Axley like the area, she fell in love with the residents and her job with the Cherokee County Health Department – so much so that she’s dedicated the past 30 years of her professional career to Tahlequah.

She rose through the ranks at CCHD to eventually become administrator for Cherokee, Mayes and Adair County Health Departments. She’s been an integral part of the development of many community-assistance agencies, including Help-In-Crisis and the Cherokee County Community Health Coalition.

Tuesday, Aug. 31, Axley will retire, following a reception from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. at CCHD.

When she arrived 30 years ago, Axley – then a psychological assistant for CCHD – was charged with developing a crisis-management model for the community.

“I developed an interest in domestic violence prevention and advocacy while working in the clinical psychology program at Oklahoma State University,” said Axley. “I even operated the domestic violence hotline from my home. When I came to Tahlequah, my sole purpose for being here was to develop a crisis intervention program. Since my area of interest was sexual assault, rape, incest and domestic violence, that’s what I set out to create here.”

Axley remembers the initial work being difficult, but rewarding.

“We conducted a needs assessment for the county, formed a board of directors and tried to get our message out,” she said. “I must have visited with hundreds and hundreds of people, from social clubs to church groups to civic organizations. They always seemed to be amazed when I’d tell them that, somewhere on the block where they live in Cherokee County, someone was suffering from abuse, rape, incest or domestic violence.”

During her first two years at CCHD, the agency contributed Axley’s time to forming what would become Help-In-Crisis. According to Axley, Wathene Young – with the North American Indian Women’s Association – was a crucial link in securing funding.

“Our first sustaining donation was from NAIWA, which gave us $100 per month to help develop HIC,” said Axley. “This allowed us to get the hotline up and going, which I ran from my home on Lake Tenkiller in the beginning. I had rented a little place at Pettit Bay, as had other behavioral health workers. It was like a party, but we worked our little tutus off.”

Shortly thereafter, HIC garnered its first major contribution: $25,000 from the Oklahoma Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.

“Those were the first ‘big bucks’ we received,” said Axley. “It allowed us to hire Pam Moore as director, and we opened a tiny office across from what was then Box IGA.”

Since then, HIC has grown to provide crisis intervention services to Cherokee, Wagoner, Sequoyah and Adair counties. In addition to the 24-hour crisis hotline, the agency provides shelter services for domestic violence victims and their children, advocates for domestic violence and sexual assault victims, transitional living, community education programs and court advocacy, to name just a few.

The campaign was the largest ever attempted in a rural community, and with the dedication of Axley and others like her, it’s been successful.

“We are fortunate to have people who are willing to give their lives over to providing community services,” said Axley.

“No way could you have the types of programs and services we have here now if you didn’t have the people who are truly committed to making this a better place to live. It takes people in positions of leadership for organizations like the Cherokee Nation, Northeastern State University, the schools, the hospitals to make this happen.”

Axley said the spirit of community and the relationships she’s built over the years are largely responsible for a number of programs’ success, including the Cherokee County Community Health Coalition, which helped plant the seed for what is today NEOHealth.

In the late 1990s, CCHD conducted a community assessment that showed Cherokee County desperately needed affordable health care. Axley and others worked to obtaining a Turning Point grant, and the effort paid off.

“We were one of only 41 entities nationwide to receive the Turning Point grant,” said Axley.

“This helped us form the Cherokee County Community Health Coalition and the health services council, which is the only public trust for health and health planning in the United States.”

Axley believes a lot of the credit for the success of these programs is due to strong and sustained relationships she’s formed over the years.

“And I’m not talking about professional relationships,” said Axley. “To be successful, at some point, they have to become personal. It’s personal relationships that help bring services to a community.”

Axley said when a crisis hits, such as an outbreak of e. coli, or flu or ice  storms or flooding, it’s much easier to call upon someone you feel comfortable with to help.

“You have to make contributions to the whole to receive help,” said Axley. “Everybody tries to help everybody else. You help others, and they respond in kind.”

Under Axley’s administration, the three county health departments have been on the forefront of every area disaster, disease outbreak and preparedness strategies.

She led relief and preparedness efforts during Hurricane Katrina by deploying staff to Camp Gruber; staffed command centers during the worst ice storms in Oklahoma’s history; and attended to the largest e. coli outbreak in the state, not to mention addressing the H1N1 flu outbreak.

Karen Sherwood, Axley’s assistant, said the staff is sad to see her leave.

“The loss of her caring, the loss of her personal touch will be missed,” said Sherwood. “I know many of the employees in the three counties will mourn her going. It’s an overwhelming feeling.”

As for the future, Axley said she’s excited to see what retirement brings.

“I’ve been ‘on’ 24-7 for the past 30 years,” she said. “I’m ready to be irresponsible for a while. While this has been my life for the past three decades, I’ve never once dreaded coming to work, not one day.”

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