By Steven Fletcher
Noreen Burke left a small town in the western part of Ireland to do human rights work in the States.
Now, more than 15 years later, she's advocating for the health of Gloucester residents as the city's new health director.
The city's Board of Health hired Burke as the city's health director in January, after a four-month search to the fill the spot left last year by former director Jack Vondras.
Board Chairwoman Claudia Schweitzer said the board chose Burke for her experience and professionalism.
Burke comes to Gloucester from Somerville, where she served as the head of the city's Human Rights Commission and, more recently, as public health director.
She has spent the last few weeks getting to know the department, and Gloucester at large.
Burke said she views public health through a larger, human-rights lens.
She said she's taken her first few weeks to learn Gloucester's social and economic nature, and how that effects the health of its residents.
Some residents in the city, she said, don't have equal access to good public health — whether that's because of the kind of house they live in or what kind of food they can afford.
"The department offers education about how to promote (residents') health," she said. "These are all deterrents of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes."
At this point, Burke said she doesn't have any hard-and-fast plans for the city's Health Department. She said she'll focus on strengthening what the department has already, working with Get Fit Gloucester and the Healthy Gloucester Collaborative before starting any new programs.
Joan Whitney, the Healthy Gloucester Collaborative's director, said she's glad the board valued Burke's experience and expertise in prevention.
"We're thrilled and appreciative of the Board of Health to bring her to Gloucester," she said.
Burke started in Somerville in 1996, and served as executive director for the city's Human Rights Commission. Before that, she was an elementary school teacher in a small Irish town.
"The reason I came to America and left Ireland was to experience a diverse social (community)," she said.
From there, Burke moved to the Cambridge Health Alliance at Somerville Hospital and worked in community outreach, specifically in substance abuse, mental health, and obesity prevention. In 2004, she became Somerville's public health director.
She said she left public health work after that, but said she wanted to return to it. So, she applied for the position in Gloucester, and the board hired her after concluding a search that drew 20 applicants.
Vondras had retired as Gloucester's health chief last April, leaving Max Shenck serving as the city's interim director.
The city didn't know whether it could hire a new director until October, said Schweitzer, when the City Council approved $42,900 for a health director's position starting Jan. 1.
"She has big shoes to fill," said Schweitzer, "and she's going to fill them very well."
Steven Fletcher may be contacted at 1-978-283-7000 x3455, or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevengdt.