Jacksonville faith community nurse found calling to care for those in need early in life

Ascension St. Vincent’s faith community nurse in Jacksonville, FL shares how she was called to serve.

Ascension St. Vincent’s Community Outreach-Faith Community Nursing Manager Willie Roberts, MSHA, BSN, RN, FCN, was 10 years old when she was called to care for those in need. Her grandmother, affectionately called Madea, became ill, developing a rash all over her body. Her family was reluctant to apply the medicated cream, so Willie stepped up to help Madea and became a caregiver by applying the cream three times a day.

“Growing up in Fort Meyers, Florida, we were lucky to get a doctor to come to our house because access to healthcare for people of color was null and void back then,” she said. “I remember my grandmother had to enter the ER through the back door. Seeing how she was treated stuck with me.”

Witnessing her family’s barriers to accessing care as a child inspired Willie to pursue a future nursing career. She later found her calling as a faith community nurse disciplined in integrating faith and health education. Now manager of the Community Outreach-Faith Community Nursing at Ascension St. Vincent’s in Jacksonville, Florida, Willie and her team bridge the gap for the most vulnerable by collaborating with 178 local churches to promote health and well-being in underserved areas in the community. 

Willie started her community nursing career in the ’80s when the AIDS epidemic caused great fear and anxiety, exposing healthcare disparities and social factors affecting health. “I knew it was my calling to advocate for people who, like my grandmother, were treated differently,” she said. “Helping others was second nature to me, and my Christian faith drove me to help those who needed it.”

When she applied for a Faith Community Nursing position at Ascension St. Vincent’s 12 years ago, the director asked Willie to write about her spiritual journey. When she put pen to paper, “I saw my life floating up from the pages,” she said. 

During her new associate orientation, a chaplain performed a blessing of the hands ceremony so participants could reflect on all they do with their hands that contribute to the needs of others. “I boo-hooed through the whole ceremony,” Willie said. “That moment was confirmation that I was where I was meant to be.” 

On any given day, Willie wears many hats: health counselor, educator and advocate, resource agent, and volunteer and support group coordinator. A program that she’s nurtured over the years is Ascension St. Vincent’s Brighter Beginnings, a free monthly program that aims to reduce the high rate of infant mortality in Northeast Florida by teaching expectant moms and women and their partners with infants age 1 or younger how to address their needs, such as infant safe sleep skills, prenatal and postpartum and infant care.

Led by the Faith Community Nursing Team and community professionals, the program addresses socioeconomic issues, behavioral health and cultural barriers that impact the health of moms and babies. Participants receive a nutritious lunch, gift card, infant-safe sleep sack and two bags of non-perishable food items through a collaboration with Feeding Northeast Florida.

Recently, her team offered free school and sports physicals at a local church. After several hours, they had to close the doors after more than 100 people showed up.

“I see myself in the people we serve; any one of us could easily be in their shoes. I talked to a nurse from a local hospital who was so grateful for our services because she couldn’t afford physicals for her three kids,” she said. “The need in the community is greater than ever.”

Willie said the Community Outreach-Faith Community Nursing Program has been the most rewarding aspect of her 50-year nursing career. “We meet people where they are in life,” she said. “When training other community faith nurses, I remind them that the people we encounter may not dress like us or talk like us, but it’s our mission to treat them with dignity, respect and compassion.”