WATERLOO — Juanita Williams has always had a passion for public and community health.
Her heart steered her in that direction, although her career path as a registered nurse has never been in a straight line. Her resume includes stints as a health educator for migrant workers, critical care and cardiac rehabilitation nurse, women’s program coordinator, maternal and child home health nurse, clinical development coordinator and public health nurse.
Williams poured her energy into each and every job. She knew that the experience and knowledge she gained would serve her well if she ever found the dream job that fulfilled her passion.
She joined Allen Women’s Health in Waterloo seven years ago. Finally, she’d found the perfect fit.
“This is what I was aiming for my whole life. I want people to have a better quality of life. I work with a team of like-minded women and serve a diverse mix of people – Hispanic, Burmese, Congolese, African American and others. I finally found my passion. It’s been a winding path. All my skills and strengths coalesced into this. All I’ve done in my career has been woven together and shaped me as a person and a nurse.”
Williams has been chosen as one of the Top 10 Nurses in the Cedar Valley. She was surprised by the recognition.
“I just felt undeserving. So many other nurses deserve this, and I feel so tremendously honored. I have the strengths of an older nurse, a variety of experience and a lot of wisdom. When you’re working with younger nurses, you realize they have their strengths and skills, too, and they’re savvy about technological things. There is generational diversity in nursing, and we all have our strengths,” she explained.
Nurse practitioner Kathi Bower nominated Williams for the honor. “I think about characteristics such as passion, dedication, empathy, activism, engagement in the community, love of diversity and so on. Juanita embodies each and every one of those characteristics and more,” said Bower, who works with Williams at Allen Women’s Health.
“She takes time to care for the whole patient – mind, body and spirit, and she makes people feel heard, loved and fully cared for,” she wrote in her nominating letter.
Williams, who grew up in Huntington Beach, Calif., has an undergraduate degree in psychology and earned her nursing degree from St. Louis (Mo.) University. She is working on a master’s degree in health education at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls.
After serving as women’s health coordinator for Mercy Health Care in Des Moines, Williams and her family moved to the Cedar Valley where she worked as a home health nurse caring for an infant with special needs, and later as a psychiatric nurse at Covenant Medical Center. Then she transitioned into clinical development and educational roles.
“I kept searching for a way to a get a foot into public health,” said Williams. “I loved my jobs, but they didn’t fulfill my passion.”
She moved to a job with the Black Hawk County Health Department directing the First 5 Program, a Department of Health effort to educate health professionals to identify special needs before children reach age 5. She later served as a recruiter at Allen College of Health Sciences, before coming to Allen Women’s Health.
Advocacy and volunteerism also are important in her life. “It wasn’t an important value when I was growing up, but in nursing school and after moving to Iowa, those values evolved. I saw nursing as helping patients, but what I’ve also realized about health care is you have to be involved in policy. Health care isn’t just the patient. It’s advocating for justice and equality in our policies, and the way we deliver health care to patients,” Williams explained.
Her husband, Dennis Harbaugh, comes from a strong family given to volunteerism – “one of the gifts that Iowa has given me,” she said. They have two sons, Jesh and Jordan.
She is co-founder of the Harbaugh-Williams Education Promise Fund, a scholarship program which encourages African-American males to stay in school and attend college. She is active in her church, Unitarian Universalists and volunteers for a range of activities, including IrishFest. She is a member of Iowa Nurses Association and a past board member of the Global Health Corps.
“I feel so proud that I had the resilience to not give up and settle, that I kept pushing myself to find and fulfill what is deep in my heart, and found a place that uses all of my skills. It was a long and winding career path. I love and respect my coworkers, and I just love the patients. Together with a good team, you can accomplish so much more than you can individually,” Williams said.