Relief. Happiness. Anxiousness.
Nancy Dykstra was experiencing a mix of emotions when Promise Community Health Center – then known as Greater Sioux Community Health Center – opened its doors for the first time in July 2008 in Sioux Center.
The day was culmination of years of planning by a group of community stakeholders who desired to bring accessible, affordable health care to all people. The previous 120 days had been a flurry of high-pressure activity: final planning, policy development, hiring of staff and the remodeling of the former bowling alley building.
Dykstra, the founding executive director for Promise, had been an integral part of it all.
“Being able to open the door and see even one patient was a huge relief and a cause for celebration,” she said. “Also, I remember feeling anxious – and a bit nervous – wondering just how we would attract the patients and fill the schedule.”
The patients did come.
Nine years later, Promise is a growing and thriving health center. And Dykstra was the guiding hand throughout its history.
For her outstanding contributions to Promise and her tireless advocacy to the community health center model of care, Dykstra was awarded the 2017 Carl Kulczyk Memorial Award by the Iowa Primary Care Association Tuesday, Oct. 17, during its annual conference in Des Moines. The award was established in recognition of Kulczyk’s contributions to the Iowa PCA and the community health field prior to his death in 2008.
“It’s an honor and a joy to receive this award because of what it stands for, because of Carl’s passion for providing care for the underserved and Iowa’s communities, but it’s also an honor because it’s what I love doing,” Dykstra said during her acceptance speech. “I love the journey; I love my work; I love community health. But it’s more than about me; it’s about all the incredible people I’ve gotten to work with and know along the way.”
Promise was a fulfillment of a dream.
As the director of Community Health Partners of Sioux County, Dykstra and her staff became aware of the shifting demographics in Sioux County due to immigration and the growing number of families without health insurance and access to affordable primary health care. Leadership of the public health agency, along with staff at Mid-Sioux Opportunity, the regional community action agency, began recruiting and assembling health-care leaders, doctors and nurses; social workers; educators; and policymakers – various people who shared the common concern of providing access to care for all people.
They discussed. They researched. They talked to state experts in public and rural health. They considered their options. Ultimately, they concluded that establishing a community health center would be the best solution.
“CHCs represent the backbone of health-care safety net services in this country,” Dykstra said. “Their history, development and establishment speak to the very issues we wanted to address: We wanted to reduce barriers to health care for those who had no insurance, not enough insurance, had no transportation, were low income, didn’t speak English or who faced other socioeconomic issues. We recognized that health disparities were present and were growing for the medically underserved and marginalized in our community.”
To be sure, the road to where Promise is today wasn’t always smooth and straight. It had its share of perilous potholes and twisting turns.
Promise opened with state incubator funding and operated as a Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC) Look-Alike. In the meanwhile, health center officials applied for FQHC status – and the federal funding that comes with it. But, despite a massive, persistent effort of advocacy with federal elected officials, the health center did not obtain its designation as a FQHC until 2012 – a full two years after the state incubator funding ran out.
If it was not for the leadership of Dykstra and others navigating the health center through that financially treacherous time, Promise easily could have slipped quietly into history.
Don Ortman, the longtime Rock Valley Elementary principal and a Promise board member since its beginning, remembers that time well.
“Due to Nancy’s perseverance, passion and unbelievable commitment to Promise Community Health Center staff and clients, the doors were kept open for two more years until that happy day when Promise Community Health Center became a federally qualified center,” he said.
Since then, Dykstra has overseen the health center’s impressive growth of services from primary medical and prenatal care to a comprehensive range of core services that now includes outreach assistance, dental, vision/eye, behavioral health and substance abuse counseling, family planning and victim advocacy. She has guided the health center through a continuous expansion of facilities that now encompass all of the available space in Sioux Center’s former bowling alley building, which Promise first leased and now owns. She has helped to organize Wellness on Wheels bicycle rides, health fairs, back-to-school screening events, annual celebration and fundraising events, and much more.
Dr. Noreen O’Shea, who served as a family practice physician and the medical director at Promise from 2008-10, said she remembers being amazed during her interview for the position as Dykstra laid out the extensive background on how long community members had worked to get a CHC established in northwest Iowa.
“It had been several years,” said O’Shea, who now is an assistant professor in behavioral medicine, medical humanities and bioethics at Des Moines University College of Medicine. “I was impressed with both her passion and her perseverance. Needless to say, both of those qualities have helped Nancy make Promise CHC the success it is today.”
Through it all, Dykstra never lost sight of whom Promise exists to serve.
“Her career has been full of service to the underserved, unloved and troubled,” Ortman said. “I don’t know anyone who is more committed to helping others. Of all the caring people I have met in my life, she is the apotheosis.”
No name has been more synonymous to Promise Community Health Center than Nancy Dykstra, but now as she eyes retirement at the end of the year, she prepares hand the reins of the organization to a new leader.
In doing so, she leaves a legacy of service.
“What is most satisfying to me as I look back on my time as Promise’s executive director is knowing that the center will continue to be here for all those who need access to care – care provided with dignity and compassion, no matter a person’s income level, background or life situation,” Dykstra said. “Working in a health center is about working with people – meeting them where they are and addressing their situation as it is. It’s about building roads out for people who face barriers.
“A wonderfully rewarding journey.”
MORE ABOUT NANCY:
Nancy Dykstra’s life story illustrates a commitment to enhancing the quality of life for all people, especially those who have been marginalized.
She served patients as a registered nurse. She taught nursing students at a community college. She was instrumental in establishing the first Medicare-certified home care and hospice in Sioux County, then directed it for 13 years. She helped to redesign the public health program in Sioux County, then served as its director for 13 years.
Finally, she was the driving force behind Promise Community Health Center.
Dykstra and her husband, Richard, live in Hull. They have three adult children and seven grandchildren.
In her spare time, Dykstra enjoys reading, bicycling, taking walks, traveling for leisure and, most of all, spending time with her husband, children and grandchildren.
To learn more about Nancy’s career, read this story.
Promise Community Health Center will celebrate the contributions of Nancy Dykstra, its founding executive director, during the ninth annual “An Evening of Promise” Celebration and Fundraiser on Thursday, Nov. 2, at Terrace View Event Center in Sioux Center. An evening of food, fun and fellowship is planned. Ticket sales run through Oct. 25. For more information about Promise’s annual event, read this preview story.