Tonya Nash, MPH, CHES®

Faces of a health education specialist

Tonya Nash
Tonya Nash

Every child in the autism spectrum is unique. Each with varying degrees of impairments and manifestations of the disorder. Parenting these children brings a wide array of challenges and special gifts. Parents and caregivers of children with autism have some things in common — a heightened awareness of human conditions, a greater tolerance for diversity of thinking, and a desire for society to gain a better understanding of autism.

SOPHE member Tonya Nash, a military wife, is no different. Tonya is taking a pivotal role in the autism spectrum for her two sons.

Tonya, who holds a master’s in public health from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, excelled after graduation with jobs as the health education coordinator with Better Health in Fayetteville, North Carolina, the chronic disease prevention coordinator in Macon Georgia, and promoting health initiatives and a tobacco cessation program at Tyndall Air Force Base in Panama City, Florida.

Her career path quickly took a sharp turn once her oldest son was diagnosed with autism. She started blogging and maintained her connections in the public health field by joining SOPHE and other public health organizations.

Knowing from painful experience that too little information, understanding, and support is available to parents of autistic children, she started a faith-based initiative in April 2017 that partners with churches to promote autism awareness and reduce the late-stage diagnosis rates of autism among African-American children.

She asked 16 churches to commit to doing at least one activity during church services for autism awareness month in April. She spoke at churches that resulted in partnerships with Autism Speaks of Georgia and Joni and Friends of Charlotte.

During the month, over 3,000 people learned about autism. One participant said,

“Many individuals in our church knew someone with autism but did not know what it was or how they could help.”

Tonya says the favorite thing about her job and what makes her come to work each day is that she meets people on a regular basis that are looking for information, hope, and encouragement as they journey through life as the parent of a child with autism. She is excited that because of the faith-based initiative she started, many of the churches have decided to take a closer look at how they can better serve persons with autism and their families.

Her next big career goal?  She wants to create a faith-based, public health agency that focuses on autism — awareness, advocacy issues, and support service delivery for families. She also wants to finish her certificate in digital health communication this summer. Tonya feels the certificate will provide her with the skills needed to effectively share her message through the internet, social media, and mobile technologies.

Her advice to young professionals?

“Be flexible! My career path looks very different than what I envisioned at graduation, but that is okay! I would also encourage young professionals to never stop learning. Technology changes from year to year and we must be willing to change and adapt with it so that we can effectively communicate our health messages to the public.”

Not bad advice, even for those most seasoned in the field.