Educator and Administrator
Yvonne Jackson, Cherokee,
PhD, RD, is Director of the Office of American Indian,
Alaskan Native and Native Hawaiian Programs in the
US Administration on Aging. Her office
provides funds to tribal senior centers so that the
tribes can provide nutrition and supportive services to
Elders. “Our goal is to keep Elders in their homes and
out of nursing homes,” she says. “We work to keep them
active and engaged with their families and communities
as long as possible.” Jackson enjoys her job, “Elders
are fun to work with,” she says.
The services that Jackson’s office funds include, congregate meals, transportation services, home-delivered meals, home supportive services, support for caregivers, and nutrition screening and education. If Elders have complex nutritional problems, they are referred to registered dietitians. Jackson issues the grants to the tribes, interprets policies and provides training to senior center staff members on such issues as stress management, caregiver skills, and cost-effective ways of improving health. Because over half of the Elders in some communities have diabetes, some training that Jackson provides focuses on planning meals that will help prevent diabetes as well as other common problems, such as hypertension.
Jackson is less than thrilled with all the paperwork that she needs to do, but teaching lifts her spirits. She has many stories about the rewards of her work, such as the Elder who told her that the food and social interaction at the senior center program had kept her husband alive longer than had been anticipated. The Elder told Jackson, “A week before my husband died of cancer, he saw that they were going to serve ham and yams at the senior center, so he got himself to the center and had ham and yams.”
When Jackson was in high school and told her guidance counselor that she wanted to go to college, he said, “Your family can’t afford to send you to college.” Jackson didn’t let this stop her: “I’m a stubborn person and decided if I want to go to college, I’m going to go to college. I think this happens a lot to minorities. You aren’t encouraged by the system.”
Jackson’s mother had died, but her father was supportive. She went to the University of Wyoming where she completed her undergraduate degree in dietetics. Then she earned her master’s degree in human nutrition and food science at the University of North Carolina. “I enjoyed research and my major professor encouraged me to get my PhD. I was tired, though of being poor. I decided to work a bit, so I took a teaching job at the University of Southwestern Louisiana and found that I really liked working with people. After that I went to the University of Tennessee where I got my PhD in socio-cultural food science.”
After completing her doctoral degree, Jackson was as a nutrition specialist at the Alabama Cooperative Extension service. Next for five years she served as a teacher of teachers in her high-level position as Chief of the Nutrition and Dietetics Training Program for the Indian Health Service in Santa Fe, New Mexico. During the following six years she was Chief of the Nutrition and Dietetics Section at IHS headquarters in Rockville, Maryland. This led to her present position.
“If you like working with people and want to make a difference in the lives of individuals and communities, dietetics and nutrition is a wonderful field. If you’re uncertain about whether or not you want to be a dietitian, volunteer at senior centers, find seniors to work with. If you think you might want to work with children, volunteer at Head Start or the Boys and Girls Clubs. Look for opportunities within your community to work with programs and see if there’s something to which you’d like to devote your professional career.”
This article was originally published in the Summer, 2009 issue of Winds of Change. (The cover artist is William Rabbit, Cherokee.)