1988 VCHS graduate Kendra Craig demonstrates a new meaning to “serving your community.” As a Vandalia student who now lives in the same house in which she was raised, she’s been a part of the rich tapestry of experiences that growing up in a small town offers, especially those that provide a sense of familiarity and unity. Kendra’s shared history with the community intertwines with her career in public health.
As an administrator at the Fayette County Health Department, she has an exclusive personal commitment to supporting her community. The depth of her dedication comes into focus when you take a closer look at her service during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, which illuminates the essential role of local health departments during times of crisis and the quiet heroes that smalltown living often produces.
When Kendra prepared to leave VCHS as a freshly minted graduate in the late 80s, she had aspirations other than public health. “I wanted to do advertising,” she says. “I wanted to do public relations. I wanted to create the ads, the commercials, the PSAs.” She pursued a marketing degree with an emphasis in communication at Greenville College but soon unknowingly found herself in the place where she would build a prolific career. A college internship was open at the health department serving Vandalia, and Kendra received her first taste of the importance of the department’s work to the community. She soon discovered that her intimate understanding of Fayette County’s dynamics, needs, and strengths was invaluable in her work. After a stint at a local hospital and the arrival of her newborn, Kendra returned to the health department in 2001 and has been there in various roles ever since.
She became administrator of the Fayette County Health Department in 2021 and was thoroughly prepared for the job the year before when the first COVID-19 cases were detected in the United States. As her responsibilities developed, the situation on the ground practically tempered her in fire to take over the administrative role. Kendra had prepared for this moment, but to be in charge and plan mitigation measures, prepare for walk-in testing, and later administer vaccines, was a whole new ball game. “It was chaotic,” she recalls, “but I was sitting right here at this desk trying to plan. What if things shut down? What if we have a number of kids that actually had contact with COVID? We sit here, and we made plans, and it was like three days later the whole state was shut down.”
Kendra’s stance on preparedness is that planning and practice are one thing, and reality is another. Though her training provided her a leg up to address what was happening, the health department was dealing with unprecedented scenarios. “I’ll never forget doing vaccines in the snow. Snow was coming down like crazy; it was like 20-25 degrees outside,” she says, shivering at the thought. “I’m in my brother’s coveralls with a jacket and hat. It was snowing so hard that the paperwork, I had to put it inside of a garbage bag because the papers were getting wet.” Armed with a series of warm-up breaks and a battalion’s stock of Hot Hand hand warmers, the staff, though freezing, were there when the public needed them the most. Kendra and the public health staff’s efforts during the pandemic were praised by the Illinois Department of Public Health for their efficiency during the emergency, once administering 900 vaccines in one day. “Our staff rocked it,” she states, a satisfied smile on her face. “Our community partners worked so good together…we did what we thought was best for our community as a whole.”
Fayette County Public Health celebrated the presidential declaration of the end of the pandemic this past May. There were confetti poppers, a plentiful bounty of Dairy Queen delights, and a deserving, hardworking staff saying their goodbyes to the hectic schedules that the COVID-19 federal emergency status brought with it. As someone who can’t avoid constant contact with countless members of the public, Kendra has a highly detailed understanding of the importance of community. She wants to pass on that appreciation to the next generation. To our question of what sort of advice she might lend to the graduating class of 2023, she’d respond as follows: “The grass isn’t always greener. Just because it’s a bigger town does not mean the opportunities are bigger or any more fulfilling than what you have right here in your hometown.” Sometimes, she believes, living your life is less about yourself and more about choosing opportunities that allow you to remain in a familiar place where you can help your neighbor when they’re tearing apart their truck in the driveway and maybe even direct a coordinated, highly efficient response team in the face of a global pandemic. When you hear Kendra and her husband blowing the horn of their steam engines just off to the side of the field where a Vandal quarterback celebrates his touchdown, you can’t help but think of camaraderie, the spirit to keep things good, but most importantly, home and the belonging that comes with it. Kendra’s here to stay, and the people of Vandalia are better off for it.