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Healthy Endeavor

Kim Barnhill puts one cell phone on hold while she answers a second. She's heading out for a meeting. Not to worry, an assistant advises, "She's available 24/7."

"We just have terrible indicators -- a lifestyle kind of thing," says Kim Barnhill, director of Jefferson and Madison County Health Departments.

As director of Jefferson and Madison County Health Departments, Barnhill has offices in both Monticello and Madison. She commutes from Tallahassee, but "her heart is in these communities,'' Monticello Mayor Julie Conley says.

Monticello News publisher Ron Cichon has devoted plenty of space tracking newsmaker Barnhill during the past three years -- reporting the launch of "Just Move Jefferson," a 10,000-steps-a-day walking program; the opening of a dental clinic; the awarding of a six-county, $1-million grant for cardiovascular health; placement of exercise stations on a nature trail. "It's been full-speed ahead ever since she hit town," Cichon says.

Madison County Health Department nursing director Bonnie Webb ticks off just the major Barnhill-installed programs: Obstetrics, dental services, primary care, prescription assistance. Physicians from Florida State University College of Medicine come weekly to both counties to help with primary care. Indigent prescription assistance is especially appreciated, Webb says.

Barnhill, 49, joined the Department of Health 12 years ago, working at the state level before taking county posts in 2002. "She's been able to leverage her connections in Tallahassee for the benefit of those small rural communities,'' says Bonnie Sorensen, deputy state health officer, who supervises the state's 61 county health directors. In terms of grant awards and collaborations, Barnhill's accomplished in a couple of years what typically takes five for new directors, says Sorensen. Barnhill's grant tally so far: $1.5 million.

"What we're trying to do in both counties," Barnhill says, "is impact the health status indicators. We just have terrible indicators -- a lifestyle kind of thing."

Jefferson County is No. 1 in the state in deaths related to strokes; Madison, No. 2 in diabetes. Seventy percent of Madison County's population and 65% of Jefferson's is overweight or obese. Both counties are poor and rural. Madison's March unemployment was the highest in the state, its five-year job growth the slowest.

Sometimes they call Barnhill "the little tornado," says Webb. She gets people moving, says Madison City Commissioner Myra Valentine, recalling their kickoff for "Step Up Florida." "We all gathered together at the city park and walked around the lake, and it was pouring down rain. People are walking -- she makes it the thing to do."

"I move at a pretty fast pace," Barnhill admits.