HERO Evelyn Rising Photo

In her long career, Evelyn Rising has worked as a medical assistant, college advisor and newspaper editor – and somehow found time to serve as president of a national organization – but her latest job may be the most rewarding of all.

She was thinking about retiring from her post as an academic dean at a private Christian university in Hobbs, N.M., when a friend suggested that she apply to become the local coordinator for the University of New Mexico’s Health Extension Rural Offices program.

“I thought, ‘This fits me to a T,’” says Rising, who started her new job last April, becoming one of 10 HEROs posted around the state.

It has been a whirlwind of activity so far. Rising recently organized a health fair for Lea County’s African American population, speaks to local senior groups and educated the public about health insurance exchanges and supports UNM School of Medicine residents working clinical rotations at the local hospital.

“Some days I really have a lot of calls,” Rising says. “I consider it a privilege that I’m here, able to help somebody. I’m blessed to be able to help my community.”

She’s a perfect fit for the job, says Dr. Art Kaufman, vice chancellor for community health at the UNM Health Sciences Center, who oversees the HEROs program.

“As a leader in the community, she has made a comfortable transition,” Kaufman says. “She knows virtually everyone there.”

Rising has “a double role,” he adds, “because she’s a HERO in general, representing that area of the state, but she’s also the lead coordinator for the African American population.”

The HERO program is modeled on the system of agricultural extension agents employed by New Mexico State University and based in counties around the state. “Their functions primarily are identifying and listening to what the community’s health priorities and needs are and linking those to UNM expertise,” he says.

That’s not what most academic health centers do, Kaufman points out. They typically develop programs and push them out to local communities, who serve as passive recipients. “This reverses that role,” he says.

The HEROs should be from local communities and have at least a master’s level degree, Kaufman says. “They have all had some kind of community health training, so they’re comfortable moving nimbly across these two spheres – the community and the university,” he says.

Rising has lived in New Mexico off and on for most of her life. Born in Texas, she spent her early years in Los Angeles before her father, a Baptist minister, was offered a posting with a congregation in Hobbs. She stayed there through junior high school before finishing high school in L.A.

She put in a brief stint at the University of Colorado, married and became a medical assistant, returning to Hobbs with her husband, who was firefighter. After he died, she earned her bachelor’s degree in education and went to work as a reporter and editor for the Hobbs Daily News-Sun, mostly working on lifestyle stories.

“I really enjoyed it,” Rising says. “I loved talking with different people. I guess I’ve been doing that my entire life – connecting people in some sort of manner.”

After a dozen years at the newspaper, she earned her master’s in educational leadership at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, where she worked as an advisor. She returned to Hobbs for a job in the registrar’s office at the University of the Southwest and had become a dean when the HERO position was advertised.

For several years Rising has also been president of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, Inc., a 118-year-old philanthropic and educational organization based in Washington, D.C.

The organization is devoted to helping young people make their way in the world, Rising said. “We’re role models for everything they do,” she says.

Rising says she and the other HEROs meet regularly to share their ideas about how best to connect with people in the community. “All of us know where our strengths are,” she says, “but you don’t always talk about where your weaknesses are – where you can do better.”

She’s a strong believer in education and cooperation as key determinants in improving public health. “We’re reaching out to the community with a vision that everything can be better if we all work together,” she says.

Kaufman says HEROs play a critical role in helping underserved rural and minority communities, where medical, dental and behavioral health care are in short supply and access to basic needs, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, may be lacking.

“Evelyn has been involved in all of that,” he says. “The reality is, if we’re going to improve community health, we’ve got to listen to what these communities’ priorities are.”