LUMBERTON — A Robeson County native returned home to cheers and congratulations on Monday when Southeastern Health held a reception for Dr. Laura Gerald, who is president of a statewide foundation that has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in grants to support health-related causes.
Her visit included a message about the health needs in rural areas such as Robeson County.
“What we have found in North Carolina now, is that there are real differences in health outcomes when we look at say, urban areas versus rural areas,” Gerald said. “One of the things we’ve seen with the Kate B. Reynolds Trust is that they have made an investment in rural counties.”
As an example, the average age of death in Wake County is 81, eight years more than in Robeson County.
“What we have determined is that we really should make some serious and long-term investments in rural communities,” Gerald said. “We find that people need access to healthy eating opportunities and active living. We do a fair amount of work with the trust in trying to provide that.”
The daughter of a school teacher, Gerald attended Lumberton city schools, graduated from Harvard University, then earned a medical degree from Johns Hopkins University. After finishing her residency in pediatrics, Gerald realized that she wanted to make a difference in her hometown.
Gerald practiced pediatric medicine and was on staff at Southeastern Regional Medical Center when returned to Harvard University and earned a master’s degree in Public Health from Harvard University and became the state health director for North Carolina. She was named president of the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust in July.
The trust was established by the late Kate Gertrude Bitting Reynolds, who was married to the late William Neal Reynolds, chairman of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. Before her death in 1946, Mrs. Reynolds established the trust, which grown from $4 million to over $550 million. Since it began, the trust has invested more than $500 million dollars toward improving life and health for needy residents of the state.
She cited as an example of a program the trust supports the Nurse Family Partnership, which sends nurses to the homes of poor, first-time mothers until their child is 2 years old.
“We’ve had over 600 babies right here in Robeson and Columbus counties who have gone through that program,” Gerald said. “We find that they have good rates of immunization, the mothers are doing well, they are often employed at the end of that two-year period.”
Joann Anderson, CEO of Southeastern Health, spoke of a Reynolds-supported program that sends paramedics to visit people recently released from the hospital to check on their health and to make sure they are taking medications properly. Money from the Reynolds trust helped expand the program to include diabetic patients who have either behavioral health or mental health issues.
“If they have both of those type diagnoses, we know that they have a greater chance of not being able to follow through with what they need to be doing once they get home,” Anderson said. “The paramedics, through that partnership, go into the homes and check on those patients to make sure they are doing what needs to be done. The Kate B. Reynolds Foundation has funded that.”
Anderson said Southeastern Health has a long history with the trust.
“Southeastern has been able to get a number of grants over the years from Kate B. Reynolds to help us serve the population,” Anderson said. “Programs that we couldn’t fund by ourselves and projects that we needed to start and maybe didn’t have the funds initially to start them, they’ve given us the funds to be able to do that. We are just appreciative that the trust has looked out for communities like ours that may be economically stressed. They’ve provided the means for us to do some things that otherwise we wouldn’t be able to do.”
Christopher Spaugh, senior vice president of Wells Fargo, which serves as sole trustee of the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, said it took about a year to find the right person to lead the organization, but that Gerald was a perfect fit as a pediatrician who had served previously on one of the trust’s committees.
“Most importantly, she has a heart for the people of North Carolina,” Spaugh said. “Homegrown talent — she’s someone who grew up here, went to school, came back here, practiced medicine in Robeson County. Her whole career has been serving the people of North Carolina.”