‘A jewel in our community’

Loretha Tolbert-Rich, who galvanized Ocala during the height of the pandemic, has voluntarily assisted citizens for decades.

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Posted May 11, 2023 | By Julie Garisto

Loretha Tolbert-Rich is applauded by people as she receives the President’s Award from local NAACP President Bishop James D. Stockton III during the NAACP 5114 Marion County Branch 41st Freedom Fund and Awards Banquet at the Klein Conference Center at the College of Central Florida in Ocala on Friday, April 28, 2023. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2023.

Loretha Tolbert-Rich talked to the “Gazette” while taking her mother to a dentist appointment, a few days after she received a prestigious award from the local chapter of the NAACP. Tolbert-Rich’s father, the Ocala-based registered nurse divulged, also benefitted from her care until he died five years ago.

“I’m a nurse; I take care of the ‘village’ in terms of healthcare advice, assisting with visits and advocacy,” she explained matter-of-factly.

The prolific health practitioner received the President’s Award from branch President Bishop James D. Stockton during the NAACP 5114 Marion County Branch’s 41st Freedom Fund and Awards Banquet at the College of Central Florida (CF) on April 28. The award, she said, was “a complete surprise.”

Stockton, the bishop of Tabernacle Praise International Church, praised Tolbert-Rich for her service to the community and public health during the most challenging period of the COVID-19 pandemic and also commented on her constant advocacy and concern about the wellness of the greater Ocala-Marion County community as a whole, in particular those who fall through the cracks.

“She did a phenomenal job of keeping us educated and keeping the reality of the pandemic in front of us, and also helping us make sure that our community had opportunities to get vaccinated,” Stockton said of the registered nurse.

This year marked the first local NAACP awards banquet since the pre-pandemic days. Eric Cummings, a member of the Marion County School Board, District 3, and the NAACP of Marion’s director of religious affairs, grew up on the same block as Tolbert-Rich and played with her younger brothers. Cummings, the pastor of New Zion Missionary Baptist Church, nominated Tolbert-Rich, but it was Stockton’s call on who would receive the award, and the bishop was of the same mind.

“Loretha is just a jewel in our community,” Cummings said, “and not just the Black community, but entire Marion County, because not only did we get people from West Ocala, but we got people from Dunnellon, from the north side of the county from the Marion Oaks area coming over to get vaccinations. She helped us facilitate several vaccination clinics in other areas of the county. …She helped us facilitate and get the resources in the clinics all around the county, but also within our community, which was needed.”

Making things happen

AdventHealth Ocala’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Michael Torres still collaborates daily with Tolbert-Rich on getting the latest health information to underserved communities, and they worked together on the immunization clinic set up at Paddock Mall from January to August 2021. 

He and Tolbert-Rich put a coalition together that would assist the mall’s vaccination clinic, a public-private partnership that included mall leadership and AdventHealth, which paid for the lease for the space used, plus the The Florida Department of Health in Marion County, Ocala Fire Rescue, the Marion County Sheriff’s Office and the Ocala Police Department.

“We deepened our relationship sitting in the command center of the vaccination clinic for many hours at a time,” Torres recollected. “I was the executive from the hospital responsible for the hospital’s participation in the vaccination clinic, and she would cover for me in the leadership role as incident commander.

Through her educational efforts and collaborations, she influenced people to get vaccinated who were wary of receiving the injection of the COVID-19 vaccines. 

“I started scheduling appointments for people,” she said with a laugh. “It was kind of funny because people would call me and say, ‘Can you schedule me for an appointment?’ as if it was my job, but I was doing it as a volunteer. People on Facebook would say, ‘I have an elderly parent, and it’s so hard to get in,’ back when there was a backlog of around 20,000 people waiting for vaccines in Marion County.”

Taking care of her family and ‘village’

In a letter to Stockton, her younger sister, Sharon Tolbert-Andrews, described Loretha as known in her church and community for being “the go-to person for instruction, assistance, and advice with many issues.” 

The letter goes onto praise her for going above and beyond as a community volunteer, for “calling and visiting the elderly and sick, assisting individuals and families in any way necessary. …  She has also assisted many families with comfort care end-of-life needs, standing by their side and providing emotional and financial support as needed…. She is our rock and strong tower; and like a generator battery that never stops going and giving. She is my hero!” 

Tolbert-Rich has two daughters and runs her own health nonprofit. She has worked as a medical liaison for the Marion County Sheriff’s Office and the Marion County Jail and served as director of nursing for the Florida Department of Corrections from 1988 to 2007. She formed an organization titled Community Care to ensure that inmates received needed healthcare.

In addition to holding a master’s degree in adult education from the University of South Florida and a bachelor’s degree in nursing from USF, Tolbert-Rich earned an associate of science degree and RN designation from CF.

“People would call Loretha to go to the hospital with them because they didn’t understand the medical terminology that was explained,” Cummings said. “And she was able to explain it or interpret it and break it down medical treatments or services, she would help them navigate it all for them.”

For as long as she can remember, Tolbert-Rich wanted to be a nurse. 

“That was my life goal since I was a little girl,” Tolbert-Rich reminisced. “I was strongly encouraged and supported by my family. My parents made any sacrifices they could to make that happen.” 

The oldest of nine children, with four brothers and four sisters, Tolbert-Rich was born and raised in Ocala. She developed an interest in anatomy when her baby brother suffered from severe asthma. Rescue inhalers weren’t available at the time, and she had read up on what to do to help him breathe better. She would take him into the bathroom with the hot water running in the shower and have him breathe in the steam to open up his airways. 

“That made me say, ‘I wanna be a nurse,’” she said, adding that her brother outgrew the allergies that caused his asthma.

Educating the community

“As it became apparent that minorities, largely due to underlying medical conditions, were dying at a faster rate than others, I felt the need to do all I could to ensure they had the vaccine available to them,” Tolbert-Rich added. “Because of the heavy distrust, for valid reasons, of the healthcare community, I researched and read everything I could find about the virus and vaccine, as well as what others were doing to encourage people to take the vaccine. What I found was that providing education to dispel the myths and misinformation, engaging our religious leaders, and capitalizing on the faith placed in them, as well as making the vaccine accessible to people in their communities were key.” 

There were numerous hurdles to overcome both situationally and psychologically in getting vaccinations to residents in the Black community and the more economically challenged neighborhoods of Ocala.

Tolbert-Rich still touches base with Torres at AdventHealth to get the latest numbers.

“She has been keeping Ocala residents updated on the statistics, and so much more,” Bishop Stockton added.

“There has been misinformation out there, a lot of distrust, but research has shown that if you educate people, if you bring education to where they live, they were more likely to accept the vaccine,” Tolbert-Rich affirmed.

Indeed, a 2021 study in the journal “Public Health” revealed that once participants attended an educational program, scores of five variables increased significantly compared to their pre-viewing level: knowledge, personal resilience, trust in authorities, vaccine importance, as well as perceived protection.  

“I joined together with our community healthcare partners, the faith community and our political leaders to establish the clinics,” Tolbert-Rich professed. “My success throughout my life has always been based on the fact that God brings opportunities to me and puts me in the right place, at the right time, with the right people, and resources to make things happen.” 

Both the busy nurse and Dr. Torres commented on recent statistical research that ranks Marion County as the third lowest in the state when it comes to overall health. Due to healthcare disparities, she said, the social determinants of health in some segments of our population are more disproportionately negatively affected than others. 

“Moving forward,” she proposed, “I want our political leaders, healthcare and faith communities to join together as we did during the COVID crisis to combat those determinants and remove those disparities, doing that will improve the health and quality of life for everyone.”

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