Reaching Out and Giving Back
In every decision Vanessa Carter makes, she considers how it will benefit the community. The director of the county’s Clinic and School Health Division is an exceptional employee, but that’s not where her mindset comes from. She’s had the community in mind her whole life, raised by parents who believed giving back to the community was not just a passion but their sole purpose in life.
“They taught us that you are not supposed to sit back and take advantage of what other people have done,” she says. “You are supposed to make your contribution. You’re supposed to bring something to the table, to the community.”
In her position, Vanessa and the more than 400 employees she oversees certainly have the ability to do that.
“We are the hands-on services for the county’s Department of Health,” she says. “We offer clinics for maternity, family planning, dentistry, nutrition, OB/GYN, colposcopy, audiology, and many more.”
Vanessa especially enjoys working with immigrants, a population that has increased dramatically in recent years.
“It is clear these folks need our services, such as the maternity clinics, and they are very appreciative,” she says. “Once they find out that we have no other agenda but to make sure their babies and their families are healthy, they are eager to work with us and they are always eager to pay.”
Vanessa also oversees the county’s 119 public schools’ health rooms and has found them to be a wonderful way to reach children in need.
“Whatever is going on at homes eventually comes into the health room,” says Vanessa, who makes it a point to visit each school at least once a year. “If a child’s parents aren’t getting along, he will eventually come into the health room with a stomach ache. Or you hear the horrible stories of children who come in simply needing a hug because they are not getting one at home. I’m really proud of the staff that takes care of these children, no matter what their need is.”
Vanessa grew up in Anne Arundel County in a blended family of five boys and three girls. Her father, William Ray Carter, an employee at Bethlehem Steel, and her mother, Sarah Evelyn Carter, a homemaker, were always active in the community, attending PTA meetings, creating a teen club in the neighborhood, working part-time for the Community Action Agency or political campaigning.
“I would always ask them, ‘Why do you guys have to go when no one else’s parents go?’” Vanessa remembers. “They would say, ‘We go so you won’t have to when you get older.’ They told us they were trying to make the community a better place so we wouldn’t have to. They were very busy, but they always found time to spend with us.”
When the county integrated the schools, Vanessa’s parents sat their children down and told them what to expect and how they should behave.
“They told us people might call us names but that we had to stand tall and be respectful,” she says. “They were always teaching us what it took to be a good person in the world.”
In 1970, her father ran for the House of Delegates as a Republican. When his campaign was unsuccessful, he encouraged his wife, a Democrat, to run for County Council.
“He had been a Republican his whole life but switched to Democrat so he could vote for his wife in the primary,” Vanessa says. “Politics were not as partisan as they are now. The fact that they were from different parties made it very interesting at the dinner table.”
When Vanessa’s mother won, becoming the first black county council member and one of only a few women on the board, her father attended every meeting.
“My mother was often the lone vote and people were not always kind to her, therefore my father never missed a meeting—he always wanted her to see at least one friendly face in the crowd,” Vanessa says. “My mother was fearless. She went to every Democratic meeting in the county, even one that was known to have many Klu Klux Klan members in attendance. She said she wanted to represent everyone.”
Vanessa knew from a young age she wanted to study urban planning, so she chose to attend Michigan State University, which had the best urban planning department in the country at the time.
After college, she got a job as a community projects planner with the county’s Planning and Zoning Department. She then went to work for The Rouse Company, which created Columbia, Md.
“It was like a dream to be able to work for a company like that, but I ended up working on more shopping mall projects than urban planning, which is what I really wanted to do,” Vanessa says.
Working her way back to her dream job in urban planning, she ultimately landed a job as a project planner with the Arundel Community Development Services (ACDS), helping to complete federally-funded affordable housing projects. Eventually, she became a link between the ACDS and the county’s Office of Human Services, during which she became familiar with the county Department of Health and eventually the director of its Clinic and School Health Division.
County Health Officer Frances B. Phillips, head of the county’s Department of Health, says Vanessa has an “amazing” network of friendships that cross all categories throughout the county.
“The values which Vanessa learned as a child are an essential part of who she is and how she lives her life today,” Frances says. “She is committed to fairness and doing things the ‘right’ way. Although generally quiet, she has a strength and determination that can be very forceful in advocating for the needy—a sort of ‘steel magnolia’ with a drop-dead sense of humor.”
Throughout her academic and working career, Vanessa has sat on more than a dozen community boards and won several honors. However, she considers one of her biggest accomplishments to be her successful fight against breast cancer, for which she was diagnosed and treated in 2004.
“I hope I can serve as encouragement to other women,” she says. “I want them to see that life continues, even after they get some very scary news.”
These days, she spends much of her free time being a doting aunt to more than 20 nieces and nephews. Her parents’ legacy still surrounds her and she is often asked to follow in their footsteps by running for political office. However, she knows, without a doubt, politics is not the path for her.
“I’ve seen what it’s like up close and it’s not something I want to do,” she says. “To do that job, you really have to love what you are doing and I really love what I am doing now.”