Meet Board Member Mary Hess: Honored with 2022 Rosenberger Award

Mary Hess, director of Health & Wellness for Fort Wayne Community Schools (FWCS), is the 2022 recipient of the prestigious Raymond Rosenberger – Minette Baum award.

The St. Joseph Community Health Foundation Board of Directors recently nominated Hess for her diligent and faithful service in improving the health of vulnerable populations.

Hess, a registered nurse, has served on the St. Joe Foundation Board of Directors for 12 years and has contributed to the Board’s and staff’s knowledge about public health. Because almost 65% of FWCS students live at 130% or below the federal poverty level, she has first-hand knowledge of the health challenges faced by many low-income students and their families. Additionally, Hess serves on the Board of the Allen County Department of Health and has a deep understanding of public health issues throughout the county.

Meg Distler, executive director of the St. Joe Foundation, applauds Hess for her leadership on numerous community non-profit boards and her commitment to providing equitable health services to all residents.

“Mary’s priority has always been on how best to serve our community, especially youth who are at-risk or come from low-income homes,” says Distler. “She works tirelessly to find ways to improve the health and well-being of all 30,000 FWCS students. Her dedication makes our entire community stronger and healthier.”

In her role as supervisor of the schools’ 60 full-time health and wellness staff, Hess works to improve the health of not just students but also FWCS employees. When Hess started work at FWCS in 1996 as a school nurse, there were a total of 16 school nurses who focused primarily on emergencies, like a child sick at school. Today, there are 41 school nurses and 19 other health and wellness employees, such as health aides. The staff have more time to focus on preventative care and the overall well-being of students.

“Wellness is now recognized as critically important for the academic success of kids, as well as important for staff,” says Hess. “When you try to figure out how to make kids successful for their entire lives, being healthy, mentally and physically, will absolutely make a difference in how they take in the education we provide. The better we support our kids, who are tomorrow’s citizens, taxpayers, workers, I think that also serves our community.”

Through the years, Hess and her team have found innovative ways to provide those necessary health services to students and staff. For example, FWCS hosts an immunization clinic on-site in partnership with Parkview Health and Super Shot. Nearly half of new students come to school without any immunizations and getting them up to date on their shots is critical to keeping them in the classrooms and focused on learning. With a grant from the St. Joe Foundation, Hess and her team were able to purchase equipment to transport immunizations directly to the schools so parents wouldn’t have to make special trips to the clinic.

“Bringing immunizations directly to the students saves a tremendous amount of lost school days every year for some of our most at-risk students,” says Hess. This commitment to disease prevention through vaccination also earned Hess a position on the Board of Super Shot, which operates the area’s largest pediatric immunization program.

Hess helped introduce another innovative approach to healthcare for students in 2004 when the district was challenged with many students having asthma issues but no inhalers or treatments available. At the time, the only option was to call an ambulance when a student was having breathing problems. Hess worked with the school physician, who wrote a standing order for asthma treatment for all 30,000 students when needed. The St. Joe Foundation then granted funds to buy nebulizers and equipment for each school so students could have a breathing treatment whenever needed. This innovative approach was soon adopted by many schools throughout Indiana and even became part of Indiana law so that these services would be made available at all schools.

Hess says, “our work with the St. Joe Foundation to address the needs of students with asthma has had a huge ripple effect across the whole state and with thousands of students.”

In her years as a nurse, Hess has seen a variety of challenges such as treating asthma, but she had never seen anything quite like the COVID-19 pandemic. Her staff worked around the clock providing COVID testing and staffing a COVID hotline for parents and district employees.

“We survived by the grace of God because it has been such a unique experience,” says Hess. “I was proud of the way our team pulled together but there were times I wasn’t sure we were going to make it; it really did become a 24/7 job. It is so wonderful to step out of it. We can start thinking now about how to focus our energies on supporting the whole health of our students and employees.”

Each year, the St. Joseph Community Health Foundation nominates the Raymond Rosenberger – Minette Baum Awardee. The recipient is selected by the Foundation Board of Directors and honors the individual’s diligent and faithful service to the community. PNC Financial Services manages the Raymond Rosenberger Trust and annually distributes a financial award to the recipient and/or their charitable organization(s).

Raymond Rosenberger was a longtime parishioner of St. Peter’s Catholic Church as well as a Kunkle Valve employee. He lived frugally and invested nearly all of his income. At his passing, his estate established a foundation that funds four individual service awards, each granted by a different local northeastern Indiana organization. The Rosenberger Award Foundation funds The St. Joe Foundation’s Minette Baum Award, along with annual awards given by Parkview Hospital, The Lutheran Foundation, and United Way of Allen County.

Minette Baum was born in Russia in 1879 and came to Fort Wayne when she was three. She was a prominent social worker and helped found the Jewish Federation, Fort Wayne Woman’s Club, League for the Blind, and the Inter-Racial Commission.