CHILLICOTHE — Serving as the director of the local Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, one Chillicothe native has spent her tenure ensuring local families have access to the resources they need.
Since 1996, Sharon Rickey has served as the WIC director at the Ross County Health District. Although she now plans to retire after serving in her role for the past 24 years, Rickey’s work to destigmatize the program, provide education and support households remains impactful.
“WIC is a service that you don’t think about until you need us,” Rickey said.
Born and raised in Chillicothe, Rickey lives in the country with her husband. Together they have two children and grandkids. For 11 years, Rickey commuted to Columbus where she worked at a hospital in foodservice as a registered dietitian.
After giving birth to her daughter, Rickey wanted to find employment in Chillicothe. She was approached by a former intern who informed her of the WIC director position at the health department. Rickey was drawn to the job because it gave her the opportunity to write grants, develop a budget and work directly with clients.
The WIC program, which is the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, was established as a pilot initiative by the federal government in 1972. Two years later, it became permanent. The program provides food, nutrition counseling and access to health services for low-income families with women, infants and children.
WIC differs from food stamps because it provides nutritional education directed towards children.
Primarily, Rickey’s team works to provide healthy foods — like milk, eggs, whole grains and vegetables — to families with children under 5. Breastfeeding support is also another main focus of WIC.
As August is Breastfeeding Awareness Month, Rickey says there’s a heightened effort to educate on the importance of breastfeeding. Beyond providing education to mothers on the importance of breastfeeding their child, WIC also offers meetings with a lactation specialist and private rooms for nursing mothers.
By emphasizing the importance of breast milk as the perfect food for a baby, Rickey said that it leads parents to consider nutrition more. And over Rickey’s career, the improvements to children’s diet because of education has been one of her proudest accomplishments.
Although it’s been a slow change, she said most children today are willing to eat fruits and vegetables. Sometimes, they even choose water over juice. The opportunity to witness families learn, grow and overcome is a treasured memory for Rickey.
Yet one of the hardest things to witness has been the impact of the opioid epidemic on the traditional family structure. Locally, the WIC program has shifted focus to providing resources to all caregivers of babies and kids because sometimes the biological parent isn’t involved.
“It’s heartwrenching to see,” Rickey said. “But Ross County has done a great job in its response. No one has sat back and I’m proud to see that happen.”
Over the past 10 years, this has also been one of the most notable changes in Rickey’s career. Now, WIC also works to bring attention to and provide education for the elderly who are caring for children.
Rickey recalls one instance where an infant was being cared for a grandmother. Because it wasn’t possible to provide breast milk, the WIC program provided baby formula to feed the child. In another instance, a grandparent was given just two days’ notice that they would be taking care of a baby. In need of a crib, WIC provided a voucher to the family.
Because of the diverse clientele and changes to family structure, it’s also more common for WIC staff to provide referrals to other local agencies. Rickey said her team can refer people to sources ranging from food pantries to clothing banks and immunization opportunities.
“We also just listen and encourage parents. Raising kids can be challenging,” she said. “There’s not always family support and sometimes we can just be that person.”
The WIC program has also led to healthier pregnancies, healthier babies and families spending less money on medical care. And the connections made by staff allow them insight into areas of the community. As an integral part of the Ross County Health District, WIC staff can direct others on new services to develop or expand.
Because of the unprecedented coronavirus, many families that may not normally qualify for WIC, do. Rickey says that while they expected to see an increase in people requesting services — they didn’t. Instead, many school districts were rolling out initiatives to provide meals to kids and the $600 unemployment benefit assisted many families, too.
But with the later running out, Rickey suspects some families may soon need WIC. There are still many spots available in the program and Rickey said they are offering contactless appointments.
Although she’s planning to enjoy the leisure that comes with retirement, Rickey said that she hopes, in the future, that WIC remains funded by the government and that those who qualify for the service to utilize it. Rickey believes that while some may feel there’s a stigma associated with WIC, it’s important for the community to know it’s okay to ask for help.
“This is not a handout. This is a federal program that puts your tax dollars to work,” Rickey said.
To learn more about WIC, visit http://rosscountyhealth.org/wic/ or call 740-702-6709.
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