Local community health leader wins national laurels

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 13 April 2013 at 12:00 am

Karen Watt, an Albion fruit grower, leads Oak Orchard Health

Photo by Tom Rivers – Karen Watt, chairwoman of Oak Orchard Health, is pictured inside the center’s Albion facility on Route 31. She also has served as a director for the National Advisory Council on Migrant Health and on the board for the National Center for Farmworker Health.

ALBION – The winner of a national award for service to community health centers has pushed a local organization to upgrade its health care facilities and expand into underserved communities.

Karen Watt, an Albion fruit grower, has served on the board for Oak Orchard Health for more than a decade, including the past two years as chairwoman. She is a former chairwoman of the National Advisory Council on Migrant Health and currently serves on the board for the National Center for Farmworker Health.

“She is well known around the country,” said Bobbi Ryder, president and CEO of the National Center for Farmworker Health. “She has been very instrumental as a board member and leader of her local center and at a national level.”

Ryder nominated Watt for the 2013 Outstanding Migrant Health Center Board Member Award. Watt will receive the honor next month in San Diego at the annual conference for the National Association of Community Health Centers.

Ryder said Watt, a retired math professor at SUNY Brockport, has been an advocate for healthcare in rural areas at the local, national and international levels. Watt often reminds professionals in health care to not overlook the humanity of their patients, who are often farmworkers and rural poor residents.

“I have admired her very frank recognition for the agricultural workers in her community,” Ryder said. “She recognizes them as human beings with feelings and families.”

Watt was asked to join the Oak Orchard board about 13 years ago. Besides her work with that organization, she has taken humanitarian trips to three African countries, working with farmers to increase profits and become more sustainable. In January she went to Cuba on a medical humanitarian trip, taking supplies into rural villages.

She led the Orleans County Farm Bureau in the late 1990s, serving as its president. She also led a North American association of farmers in direct marketing. She and her husband Chris were at the forefront of the agri-tourism movement in Western New York, turning their Route 98 market into a destination.

Watt said access to health care remains a personal mission. In January 2005, she was detected with breast cancer. She is a survivor, and works hard to raise money for research.

Nine months after she was diagnosed in 2005, she and her husband hosted a fund-raising walk through their orchards. The event has continued every October, and has raised about $225,000. The event last year attracted 1,000 participants and netted about $50,000.

Watt remains committed to community health centers. In the past few years Oak Orchard Health has acquired a healthcare site in Lyndonville, expanded and upgraded sites in Albion and Brockport, and will open a new facility in Warsaw in June. The organization also runs a mobile dental unit to schools in Orleans, Genesee and Wyoming counties.

Oak Orchard Health serves 16,000 patients in the community, and is pushing to do more to promote health and wellness in Orleans County and nearby rural towns.

“We are known throughout the region for delivery of excellent primary health care, whether you’re insured or uninsured,” she said.

Oak Orchard sees 60,000 client visits annually and 42 percent of the patients have insurance, which is high for a community health center. Watt sees that as an indication Oak Orchard has won respect in the community for its high quality of care.