Public health is a special calling for this Belvidere woman. Learn how she serves others as the public health administrator for the Boone County Health Department, and why she feels she’s right where she needs to be.
One of Amanda Mehl’s favorite quotes comes from Eleanor Roosevelt. “Do one thing each day that scares you.”
“That’s what powerful, privileged women who want to change the world should be doing,” says the public health administrator for the Boone County Health Department. “If I want to change the world, I should think like Eleanor Roosevelt.”
Mehl grew up in a home with parents who were pastors. The St. Louis native could have easily followed in their footsteps; instead she found another way to serve – pursuing a career in public health.
“I knew I didn’t want to go into the ministry, but I grew up with the understanding of finding a role to serve other people,” she says. “I grew up with plenty of food on the table and a warm bed to sleep in at night, and parents who cared about me, pushed me to succeed and supported me in my educational and career path. I was searching for a career option where I could take care of as many people as possible. When I found public health, I found I could take care of whole populations of people all day, every day. This is my ministry.”
As public health administrator, a position she’s held since 2016, Mehl is responsible for overseeing a population of 54,000, a budget of $1.2 million and 14 employees. Not too shabby for someone who’s just 35, who says her glass is always half full and describes herself as positive, passionate and persistent.
“She’s a tireless worker and a fierce advocate for public health,” says Cathy Ferguson-Allen, public health administrator for Lee County Health Department. “She never backs away from a challenge, or any task or program needed to improve public health in Boone County or the state of Illinois, despite how busy she is. She doesn’t back down from what needs to be done.”
The public health mission encompasses three primary elements: prevent the spread of disease, promote the health and wellness of the community, and protect the public. “People don’t realize that when they go through a drive-thru or a restaurant, take their kids to a public pool or a summer camp, or drink a glass of water out of a tap, they are being impacted by public health,” she says. “Our goal is to work behind the scenes to make sure people are healthy, and that includes food safety, water and sewage protection, or vaccinations or maternal child care.”
With such a demanding job come plenty of challenges. “Leading a small, rural resource-challenged health department in Illinois in 2019 is a pretty scary thing some days,” Mehl says. “We are faced with budgetary challenges and faced with an increasingly polarized political climate that has a direct impact on our staff and operations, and the community that I serve. I would be dishonest if I didn’t tell you that I sometimes go to bed at night worrying about it. But then I wake up in the morning, get in here and get done what needs to be done.”
A product of the public school system, Mehl was an overachiever growing up. At Webster Groves High School in St. Louis County, she participated in the marching band, swim team and student government. She surrounded herself with students who were like-minded, and who offered plenty of diversity from all walks of life. Expectations were high. “It wasn’t a question of will I go to college,” she says, “but what will my graduate degree be.”
In seventh grade, Mehl started taking Spanish, which became her second language. She continued her Spanish studies in high school and at Beloit College. In college, she studied abroad in Ecuador, where she lived with a family and worked in a maternal child health clinic. “I knew the only way to really learn a language was to fully immerse myself, and go someplace to be with people who spoke it.” Mehl also performed mission work in Nicaragua, which is where she met her husband, Carmelo.
In 2003, Mehl traveled to the border communities of El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico, where she learned about the dynamics of free trade agreements and the rights of women and children. “It was absolutely fascinating,” she says. “It made me thirsty to learn more, travel more, and it pushed me out of my comfort zone.”
A lifelong learner, Mehl graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Beloit College in 2006; earned her master’s degree in public health from the University of Illinois-Chicago in 2010; and four years later a degree in nursing from Rock Valley College. “I don’t like to be bored,” she says. “I like to be stimulated by lots of things at the same time, which can be both a blessing and a curse.”
For nearly six years, Mehl worked in public health and social service for the Winnebago County Health Department; she joined Boone County in 2012 as the director of personnel health services, before being promoted four years later.
“Certain people have incredible potential, and Amanda’s definitely one of them,” says Ferguson-Allen. “She got her bachelor’s degree and earned a master’s degree in public health. That would have been enough for most of us. But then she got her nursing degree. She’s a special one.”
Since taking the top spot, Mehl has gained greater visibility in the public health arena. She participates in online trainings and has presented at several national conferences. The opportunities have allowed her to develop new skills and meet mentors along the way. “I learn every day,” she says. “Management is such a challenging position and a humbling position. I tell my staff every day that I make mistakes and I learn from them. The field is changing. The community is changing. Nothing is static in this world, including my skill set.”
These days, Mehl and the health department are immersed in two major initiatives. For two years, a behavioral health task force has been working to devise a strategic plan intended to overhaul the entire behavioral health system which, according to Mehl, has been non-existent in Boone County for people with mental health and substance abuse issues. The heroin use fatal overdose rate in Boone County is higher than the national average, Mehl adds. The task force is comprised of representatives from all facets of northern Illinois including local government, policing agencies, hospitals, public schools, mental health and substance abuse facilities, and social service organizations.
The task force is currently looking for grant money to address the issues that plague the county. “We’re very concerned about members of our community,” Mehl says. “We’re creating what we call a systematic safety net and referral navigator model. These people are part of the community we live in and deserve the same treatment we all get. I’m cautiously optimistic we will get funding to help fill the gaps the task force has identified.” The health department is also working on achieving national public health accreditation for the first time ever. Mehl says the entire process could take another three to five years to complete.
In her free time, Mehl teaches Zumba classes at an area YMCA. “If I’m the spokesperson for the county on healthy living I should be exercising regularly and eating right,” she says. Mehl and her husband also enjoy traveling to various beaches, exploring historical cities and returning to Nicaragua on occasion.
For Mehl, the possibilities, both professionally and personally, are limitless. For now, however, she’s content with trying to keep Boone County healthy. “I’ve fallen in love with this small, rural resource-challenged community,” she says. “A small town in rural America is the changing face of the nation. We have health inequities here, immigrants who need services, issues with mental health and substance abuse that need to be tackled and fixed, not to mention transportation and language barriers.
“There’s so much work to do.”