• Pearlette Edwards, a coordinator for Bullock County, Alabama, gets the Community Dissemination Institute 2021 crowd motivated and moving during a Richard Simmons-styled "Sweating to the Oldies" stretch break at the Marriott Shoals Conference Center in Florence, Alabama, Nov. 14-16. (Photo by Wynter Byrd)

  • OCOE team members rise early for morning exercise before sessions at the Community Dissemination Institute 2021, hosted by the Office of Community Outreach & Engagement in Florence, Alabama, Nov. 14-16. (Photo by Wynter Byrd)

  • Glenda Jones, a kitchen coach and personal chef who specializes in healthy food options, demonstrates how to prepare several dishes during a workshop at the Office of Community Outreach & Engagement's Community Dissemination Institute 2021 in Florence, Alabama, Nov. 14-16. Jones is also a member of the OCOE Community Advisory Board. (Photo by Wynter Byrd)

  • Annie Perry Smith, a coordinator for Panola County, Mississippi, waves to the camera between sessions at the Office of Community Outreach & Engagement's Community Dissemination Institute 2021 in Florence, Alabama, Nov. 14-16. (Photo by Wynter Byrd)

  • Veronica Hilliard, an Office of Community Outreach & Engagement Commmunity Health Advisor for Jefferson County, Alabama, takes a moment to sample a healthy meal during a presentation from Chef Glenda Jones at the Community Dissemination Institute 2021 in Florence, Alabama, Nov. 14-16. (Photo by Wynter Byrd)


Health advocates, researchers and community partners converged for three days of networking, information sharing and empowerment at the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center’s Office of Community Outreach & Engagement Community Dissemination Institute 2021, Nov. 14-16 in Florence, Alabama.

The meeting at the Marriott Shoals Conference Center brought together Community Health Advisors, or CHAs, and community partners to share information that will be taken back to their communities in Alabama and Mississippi.

The institute was many attendees’ first time seeing colleagues face to face after more than 18 months during which the pandemic prevented live, in-person meetings.

Office of Community Outreach & Engagement Program Director Claudia Hardy, MPA, presents at the Community Dissemination Institute 2021, hosted by the OCOE in Florence, Alabama, Nov. 14-16. (Photo by Wynter Byrd)Office of Community Outreach & Engagement Program Director Claudia Hardy, MPA, presents at the Community Dissemination Institute 2021, hosted by the OCOE in Florence, Alabama, Nov. 14-16. (Photo by Wynter Byrd)

“There’s a lot of newness here,” said Jeanie Ward, a longtime CHA from Dallas County, Alabama, noting the many new faces in the crowd. “To see the new ones here – they bring a lot of fresh ideas. It has been a good fellowship, but it is also very educational.”

The gathering was a first for Joan Wattenbarger, a CHA from Walker County, Alabama. Wattenbarger said the sessions introduced to her new cancer awareness information, while also reinforcing her existing knowledge, all of which she said is helpful in her role as a CHA in her community.

“The information has been great,” she said. “I’m really impressed with it and would like to learn more.”

The meeting also featured the institute’s first Health Equity Town Hall, where O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center Director Barry Sleckman, M.D., Ph.D., and Associate Director of Community Outreach & Engagement Monica Baskin, Ph.D., presented and listened to team members about advancements, challenges and ideas regarding continued outreach in medically underserved communities.

While updates and new information were key to this year’s sessions, there was also plenty of time for friendly fellowship and celebration.

The institute also served as the finale of the Office of Community Outreach & Engagement’s 25th anniversary campaign. Music, balloons and the premiere of both a new documentary and a commemorative print publication capped the yearlong celebration.

“This year’s institute was a special one, as both the celebration of our anniversary and the return after a year’s hiatus due to the pandemic,” said Office of Community Outreach & Engagement Program Director Claudia Hardy, MPA. “It was clear from the many smiles that this was time well spent. We left this gathering reinvigorated, united and ready for the challenges ahead to serve our communities.”

“The 25th anniversary celebration was an awesome idea, which was executed to perfection,” said Karen Bolling-Walker, DNP, a coordinator for Walker County, Alabama, who attended the institute for the first time this year. “The opening dinner and entertainment were great. The information provided will be useful going forward to help bridge health disparities in our underserved populations.”

Both Katie Hall, Ph.D., R.N., and Angela Duck, Ph.D., R.N., professors at the School of Nursing at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, are partners of the Office of Community Outreach & Engagement who attended the institute for the first time.

Barry Sleckman, M.D., Ph.D., director of the O'Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB, welcomes participants to the Office of Community Outreach & Engagement Community Dissemination Institute 2021 at the Marriott Shoals Conference Center in Florence, Alabama, Nov. 14-16. (Photo by Wynter Byrd)Barry Sleckman, M.D., Ph.D., director of the O'Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB, welcomes participants to the Office of Community Outreach & Engagement Community Dissemination Institute 2021 at the Marriott Shoals Conference Center in Florence, Alabama, Nov. 14-16. (Photo by Wynter Byrd)

“It is encouraging to see so much community-based research going on,” Hall said. “This is a good snapshot of all the things that the O’Neal Cancer Center is doing. It motivates me for ways we can continue this is in Mississippi.”

Duck expressed a similar reaction during a break between sessions.

“It is so inspiring as a researcher to see the practical implications,” she said. “The pandemic did not inhibit the vital work that needed to be done because the need is even greater.

The institute marked a return after several years for Joyce Nunn, a CHA for Humphreys County, Mississippi. Nunn’s association with the office began with the Deep South Network.

“This gave me more information about different cancers to educate our people,” she said, specifically mentioning lung cancer. “People aren’t aware of how dangerous lung cancer is. We need to start with the younger kids and tell them what to do and what not to do.”


This story originally ran in the December 2021 issue of Community Connections, the monthly newsletter of the Office of Community Outreach & Engagement at the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB.