After a decade of caring for the health of the Harvey County community, Rita Flickinger is hanging up her hat as an administrator in favor of youth basketball games and baking zwieback with her grandchildren.



After a decade of caring for the health of the Harvey County community, Rita Flickinger is hanging up her hat as an administrator in favor of youth basketball games and baking zwieback with her grandchildren.
Flickinger, director of the Harvey County Health Department, recently announced her retirement. Her last day will be June 30.
Flickinger, 71, who worked as a nurse at Halstead Hospital, a corporate nurse and in long-term care, came out of retirement to work for the Harvey County Department on Aging.
“I retired early, but I found I was not ready to retire,” Flickinger said. “I didn’t like retirement at all.”
After a year, she was hired as the director for the health department, a position she has had for 10 years.
“I felt I wanted to be invested in my community,” she said.
Flickinger said she had planned to retire at the end of the year but decided it would be better for the new director to come into the position at the beginning of the state’s fiscal year on July 1.
The new director will embark on a new set of state goals, and Flickinger said she wanted the new director in on those projects from the start.
The state sets the health goals in 10-year increments. The department is just wrapping up work on its Healthy People 2010 goals.
Among those goals was an initiative to decrease smoking in the state.
The health department, under Flickinger’s direction, was instrumental in getting the city of Newton’s smoking ban passed in 2007.
During Flickinger’s tenure, the health department also launched a dental program for grade-school children.
Annually, about a third of the Harvey County grade-school children receive free oral exams and fluoride varnishes during the school day.
“Our program has been very successful,” Flickinger said. “Various other people have tried to copy our program.”
Typically at the same time the dental exams are performed, the department offers FluMist vaccinations to students.
Flickinger also has worked to make the health department more visible to Harvey County residents. Flickinger said she has worked to increase awareness of the department’s services and get more workers out in the community interacting with the public and giving vaccinations.
During the last 10 years, the number of visits at the health department has doubled to more than 23,000 visits annually.
Flickinger said she has seen a shift in public health during her tenure and not just in the number of people utilizing services.
Flickinger came to the health department shortly before the 9-11 attacks in New York. After the 9-11 attacks, public health departments became integrated in local emergency planning.
The department added a public health emergency planning director, a position now held by Wendy Bishop.
Craig Simons, former Harvey County administrator, said Flickinger was key in coordinating the public health response to the pandemic flu and H1N1 outbreaks.
“Dealing with bio-terrorism threats and dispensing drugs was not something we had 20 years ago when I came on,” Simons said. “She did a good job on keeping us up-to-date on that.”
Simons said Flickinger also was an important force behind the push to get Health Ministries federal community health center status, which has allowed the center to grow and see Medicare and Medicaid patients.
“I think that has been a great project in the area,” he said.
Flickinger said she was most proud of her work as president of the Newton Community Child Care Center board. The non-profit agency took over operations of the child-care operation that was operated by Newton Medical Center.
“It is quality child care that I knew should not be lost at all,” Flickinger said. “It is very needed in the community.”
The center began with 20 children and has grown to more than 100 children, including a newly opened location at Asbury Park.
After serving on the board since the organization’s inception in 2008, Flickinger stepped down in March so her employees could do inspections of the center.
However, Flickinger said she looks forward to returning to the center as a volunteer after her retirement.
Flickinger said her biggest challenge in her job as director at the health department has been choosing which projects to pursue.
“The most challenge has been to keep up with everything that has to be done,” she said. “There are so many opportunities for programs and funding. You can only spread yourself so thin. You have to really look at the community’s needs.”
After working most of her career in positions outside of her home of Newton, Flickinger said being a leader and a public servant in her own community was what drew her to public health.
Flickinger said the new director also will need to be a community leader.
Standards and certification for public health departments are on the horizon, and the new director will have to take the lead in meeting those new standards.
Applications will close this week for the new director, and Flickinger said Tuesday the county had 16 quality applicants for the position.
She smiled at her staff and said, “You will be well taken care of.”
In her second retirement, Flickinger said she doesn’t plan on slowing down too much. She wants to spend more time with friends and her grandchildren and in pursuit of her love of cooking. She might even take a master gardener class.
“Kenny Meier (former county commissioner) once told me to work as long as you feel like,” Flickinger said, “and I think I have.”