Supporting Home and Community-based Health Services for Chicago’s Medically Underserved


VNA’s Super Star Award selection panel named Sally Lemke, RNC, MS, NP as the winner of the $25,000 unrestricted award.

The VNA Foundation Recognizes Sally Lemke, RNC, MS, NP for Her Commitment to the Medically Underserved in Austin Neighborhood

The VNA Foundation Recognizes Sally Lemke, RNC, MS, NP for Her Commitment to the Medically Underserved in Austin Neighborhood

CHICAGO – July 10, 2007

Even on her days off, it’s not unusual for Sally Lemke to be awoken in the middle of the night to answer a question, calm a fear or simply lend a compassionate ear. In addition to her full-time job as a loving mother of two children, Lemke is also community health nurse practitioner at the Austin Health Center of Cook County, leading a program that provides prenatal care for expectant mothers in the city’s predominantly African American Austin community. With a resume full of varied experiences as a local community health practitioner, her commitment and an undeniable enthusiasm for her work — resulting in more than 100 healthy new babies born in the past 18 months at Stroger Hospital — are just a few reasons why Lemke was recently chosen as winner of the 2007 VNA Foundation Super Star in Community Nursing Award and recipient of a $25,000 unrestricted cash award. Now in its sixth year, the VNA Foundation’s “Super Star” award recognizes Lemke’s significant contributions and hopes to simultaneously shine a light on the need for more talented young people to choose community health nursing as a career.

“For the past five years, the VNA Foundation has acknowledged the incredible service of all community health nurses and the important role they play in providing much-needed nursing care to our local neighborhoods,” said Rob DiLeonardi, Executive Director of the VNA Foundation of Chicago. “This year’s candidates were equally exceptional but Sally Lemke’s story clearly stood out from the rest. Her journey to become a public health nurse was inspirational and she continues to make such a difference within the Austin community. We are so honored to call her our 2007 Super Star.”

The nation’s public health care crisis is constantly under debate with an estimated 43.6 million people in the United States, or 14.8 percent of the population, having no health insurance according to a new survey release on June 25th by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nationwide, public health nurses play an integral role in serving the needs of the uninsured population despite often challenging and difficult situations. Public health nurses unselfishly care for the thousands of medically underserved here in Chicago.

About The 2007 Award Winner

Sally Lemke decided early on in her career that she wanted to make a difference by becoming a community health nurse. After receiving a Bachelor of Social Work at Central Michigan University in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, an idealistic and human rights-focused Lemke enlisted in the Peace Corps and was immediately stationed overseas in Central African Republic. There for more than three years, Lemke ignited her lifelong interest in serving the health needs of underserved female populations. As a health educator and trainer in the Corps for the first two years of her stay, Lemke worked with 17 primary schools in providing national health education curricula and administered tests and supervised lesson development. During her final year in Africa, Lemke developed a pilot program for women’s groups within remote villages to introduce appropriate technologies and health and hygiene concepts with a goal of personally empowering the African women. Her experience in Africa was life altering and began a shift in Lemke’s plans when she returned back to the U.S. in 1988.

After her Peace Corp stint, Lemke moved out east where she continued working with the medically underserved – this time caring for chronically mentally ill patients – as the Vocational Coordinator/Mental Health Worker at the Second Story Clubhouse in Newton, Massachusetts. Lemke coordinated and expanded a vocational rehabilitation program, developed community-integrated job placements, provided pre-vocational and on-the-job training and support for many clubhouse members. This experience, coupled with her time overseas, finally crystallized Lemke’s decision to pursue a career in community health nursing.

In 1991, Lemke relocated to northern California where she enrolled in the Master’s Entry Program in Nursing, an accelerated nursing program at the University of California in San Francisco (UCSF). Receiving her R.N. in June 1993, Lemke continued her training within the school’s graduate program in nursing. During her time in San Francisco, Lemke gained more grassroots experience as a research assistant within the perimenstrual symptom management program in the department of Family Health Care Nursing at UCSF from 1993-1995 and also completed clinical practicums at a number of community health clinics serving the specific needs of women. Earning her Master of Science in Nursing with an emphasis on women’s primary care in 1995, Lemke was awarded the National Health Service Corps Scholarship that recruits primary care providers to medically underserved areas throughout the United States.

That scholarship led her to Chicago Family Health Center, serving the needs of the city’s south and southeast communities. There she provided obstetric and gynecological care to a multicultural community and also served on a mobile health care team serving the homeless. After four years at the center, Lemke joined the University of Chicago Hospital’s Women’s Center where she continued to care for women and designed and implemented a clinic-wide pap tracking system for a team of 25 clinicians and also served on the hospital’s Women’s Heath Education Council. From 2001-2005, Lemke was employed at the Friend Family Health Center continuing her care of the medically underserved women of Chicago.

Lemke’s most memorable and meaningful work is in her current role as the Nurse Practitioner as the Austin Health Center of Cook County (part of the Cook County Bureau of Health Services). For the past two years, Lemke has created and implemented one of the center’s most successful programs utilizing the Centering Pregnancy model of group prenatal care. Centering Pregnancy ( integrates the provision of health assessment, education and support within a stable group of 8-12 expectant women. Since beginning the program 18 months ago, Lemke has shepherded 15 groups of pregnant women through a 10 session program that provides basic prenatal care in a group setting. Each session, Lemke meets with the group to assess each woman’s progress and facilitates learning about relaxation methods, stages of labor and parenting skills. The “group dynamic” nature of the program encourages sharing and bonding among the women and results in better outcomes. In addition to witnessing a heart-felt bond growing among the women and their groups, Lemke is most proud of the quantitative results of the program and its positive impact on birth outcomes. With more than 100 successful births recorded, the center has also seen a reduction in low birth weight babies and a higher breastfeeding rate among mothers. The center also reports a significant decrease in c-section delivery rates (one-third of the national average).

“I love my work and I’m very proud of receiving this honor from the VNA Foundation,” said Lemke. “I learned a long time ago in the Peace Corps that a lot of small contributions add up to a greater good for all. If we all do our part, we can see big change. I know that I’m in the company of a lot of fantastic public health nurses throughout Chicago that are making a difference in the lives of the medically underserved.”

“Shocked and thrilled” to receive the $25,000 unrestricted cash award, Lemke plans to save the majority of her prize for her sons’ college fund. Always grateful for her fellow nurses, she also plans to take out a few deserving colleagues that have mentored and supported her along her career on a much-deserved girl’s “spa day.”

Today, Lemke remains active in her field and serves Adjunct Clinical Instructor (preceptor to graduate level nursing students for DePaul University, Rush University, Saint Xavier University in Chicago and Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana). She is fluent in French and Sango (African dialect) and medical Spanish. Lemke lives with her husband Tony and two children in Oak Park.

About the Super Star In Nursing Award

The VNA Foundation of Chicago’s Super Star in Community Nursing Award was introduced in 2001 to acknowledge the service that public health/community health nurses provide, recognize the value of nursing in the community, help attract young people to the profession and contribute to efforts to decrease the nursing shortage. Hundreds of thousands of nursing positions are unfilled today and that number is expected to skyrocket in the coming years as 78 million aging Baby Boomers begin placing unprecedented demands on America’s health care system. The nurse staffing problem today is a major factor in emergency department overcrowding, cancellation of elective surgeries, discontinuation of clinical services and the limited ability of the health system to respond to any mass casualty incident. In addition, 90 percent of nursing homes report an insufficient number of nurses to provide even the most basic care, and some home health agencies are being forced to refuse new admissions. Although there are currently shortages of other health care personnel, nurses are the primary source of care and support for patients at the most vulnerable points in their lives. Nearly every person’s health care experience involves a registered nurse. Birth and death, and all the various forms of care in between, are attended by the knowledge, support and comfort of nurses.

In early June 2007, Lemke and five semi-finalists were chosen by an all-volunteer, independent panel of community health experts, including longtime physician, public health activist and radio commentator Quentin Young, M.D.; Ruth Slaughter, Director of Public Health Nursing at the Chicago Department of Public Health; and last year’s “super star” award winner Cat Quinn, among others.

About the VNA Foundation

From 1890 to 1995, The Visiting Nurse Association of Chicago employed its own nurses and other health professionals to provide health care to the underprivileged. Since 1995, The VNA Foundation has operated exclusively as a grant making foundation, giving financial support to nonprofit organizations offering home- and community-based care to the medically underserved. In fiscal year 2006, the VNA Foundation distributed 54 grants totaling $1,988,931 in support of its mission to increase home and community-based health services for Chicago’s medically underserved. Recipients of the grants include a variety of agencies providing health care and health services to the homeless, the working poor and the disenfranchised. For more information on the VNA Foundation, please visit


The VNA Foundation also awarded five Super Star finalists unrestricted $2,000 cash awards for their exceptional efforts in community nursing:

  • Jehan-Marie Daley Adamji, RN, BA, BSN
    Public Health Nurse, Orr Health Center, Rush University Medical Center
  • Suzanne J. Barker, RN, BSN, ILCSN
    District School Nurse and Health Services Coordinator, East Maine School District 63
  • Lenora Pizzello, RN, BSN, MS
    Sanctuary Place Nurse, Interfaith Council for the Homeless, Rush University Medical Center
  • Michele Shubitowski, RN, BSN
    Director, Erie Teen Health Center, Erie Family Health Center
  • Sally Wagoner, RN, BSN
    Director, Wellness Center, American Indian Center

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