Mary Sheryl Horine makes her ‘playground’ a healthier, happier place to play

  • Mary Sheryl Horine “lives like she means it” by actively advancing healthy lifestyles and services in the High Country. Photo submitted

Mary Sheryl Horine grew up at Appalachian State University – literally. Her father was a professor at Appalachian State University and her home was adjacent to the football stadium. So, according to Horine, “The campus was my playground. Growing up in Boone contributed to my fundamental core, a grounded sense of who I am, and what my values are with a feeling of support from the entire community.”

But, she believes “getting out of your comfort zone is essential to growth.” She left Boone, and then, in 2005, came back.

Horine is actively changing ideas and realities about health care in this region as associate director of Appalachian’s Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina (BCBS-NC) Institute for Health and Human Services (IHHS) and council director of Girls on the Run - High Country  (GOTR-HC).

“Growing up here, becoming professionally trained and educated [elsewhere], and bringing my experiences back to try to personally apply what I have learned in a regional context has been a lot of fun. …[it] has also opened my eyes to the tremendous opportunities for growth and ways that we can be doing things differently to impact and help our region.”

Boone to Boston and back – a full circle experience

After attending UNC-Chapel Hill, she moved to the Northeast to start a career and to attend graduate school at Boston University. There, she gained experience in international and local public health, with a focus on urban environments. The Northeast offered Horine an extensive background in her specialty – infectious disease epidemiology – and, with training from various medical schools and subsequent teaching opportunities, she was able to achieve her dream of a career of service in public health.

After 20-plus years in the Boston area, she wanted to come back home to raise her family. Although the area had grown, the flavor of the town was still the same, she said: healthy and active, year-round. Horine also feels “Appalachian’s desire of caring about the region and the people by bringing teachers to underserved rural areas was why the university was founded. That tradition still remains and sets Appalachian aside from the other colleges in the UNC system. [Appalachian] has a strong tie to the region and to the environment.”

Horine joined Appalachian in 2005 as an adjunct professor. When in 2008 “this vibrant mix of people and colleges” formed the BCBS-NC/IHHS – a collaboration of various disciplines on campus coming together to provide health resources, Horine said she found a niche that appealed to her desire to make an impact. She was hired to assist with community outreach efforts for the IHHS before being appointed associate director. Her goal then, as it is today, “is to look at the needs in our regional community in terms of health and then try to figure out ways that the university can help meet those needs.”

According to Horine, opportunities for collaboration include:

  • access to faculty and staff expertise;
  • needs assessment and community-based research;
  • community engagement; and
  • experiential learning opportunities for students.

With regard to the latter, “I don’t think there’s a better way to apply what the students have learned in the classroom,’ she said, “than to go out and talk to a human and actually apply what they have learned.”

Making rural health her mission – at work and play

“Mary Sheryl is always looking to engage students in community outreach,” said her colleague Dr. Gary McCullough, associate dean of research and general education at BCBS and the director of IHHS. “She accomplishes this mission not only through her profession, but her active commitment to her region. Her engagement with her passion makes us all want to ‘live like you mean it.’ She serves not only as an excellent role model for students, but for us all.”

Horine’s impact on the region is evident through various projects at BCBS-NC/IHHS. She is currently working to build community connections through the Rural Health Outreach Collaborative (RHOC). The RHOC is a rural health training partnership between Appalachian’s Beaver College of Health Sciences (BCHS) and Wake Forest Baptist Health/Wake Forest School of Medicine. Using a hybrid in-person and telehealth approach, the RHOC takes faculty and students from a number of departments into regional senior centers and other locations to provide health screens, assessments and educational health-related programs. These partnerships with local providers create a sustainable collaborative culture of health, she said.

Girls on the Run – High Country  (GOTR-HC), which provides afterschool programming in Watauga, Ashe, Alleghany, Avery and Wilkes counties for third through eighth grade girls, is also a passion. In her role, Horine oversees all aspects of the organization: fundraising, site recruitment, coach recruitment – including Appalachian students – participant recruitment, evaluation and reporting, accounting, board development, training of program volunteers and marketing.

The after-school program includes a 24-lesson curriculum that combines self-esteem enhancement with workouts and culminates with a 5K race. 

Horine doesn’t normally have one-on-one time with the girls, but she does occasionally fill in as coach when a scheduled coach is called away. On one such occasion she recalled the girls’ responses when asked how they liked being coached by a college student: “She rocks,” “She’s awesome,” “She listens with both ears.” But one girl’s answer, “I can be anything I want to be when I grow up, even a ‘Girls on the Run’ coach like her,” was the one Horine said best sums up the program. “It’s not about running,” she said. “It’s about changing girls’ lives. Making them realize that they can do things in life that they never thought were possible; about inspiring them to be healthy and confident and developing their own set of values.”

Horine also practices good personal health herself. She exercises five to seven days a week by running and weightlifting. She also plays competitive tennis, snowboards and cross-country skis as often as the weather allows. “Mostly for good health though,” she said, “I try to stay positive and laugh and be my authentic, goofy self, as much as my family and people around me will tolerate.”

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