Sue Birch to be honored at Doc Willett Health Care Heritage Awards |

Sue Birch to be honored at Doc Willett Health Care Heritage Awards

Michael Schrantz

Sue Birch is receiving the Health Care Community Advocate award Friday night at the fourth annual Doc Willett Health Care Heritage Awards.

— Sue Birch may have left her job in Steamboat Springs for a position in the Gov. John Hickenlooper's cabinet, but her tenure as chief executive officer of the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association and her work with other health-related groups has ensured her presence still is felt.

When Birch receives the Health Care Community Advocate honor at the Doc Willett Awards reception Friday, it will confirm what many already know: She never really left.

Birch said she's accepting Friday's award on behalf of several groups, including friends, family and co-workers.

"It's a pretty humbling experience," she said. "It feels like taking credit for stuff done as a team or as a group. Really, it should go to everybody."

Birch said working with leaders and individuals across sectors and trying to support them was one of the highlights of her time spent at the helm of the Northwest Colorado VNA.

"She has touched so many people's lives and so much of it was really invisible over two decades of work," said Lisa Brown, the VNA’s current CEO. "She supported people to reach their fullest potential."

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"She's always been seen by people in the valley as someone to go to for people who want to work for the community good," said John Merrill, of Hayden, who is president of the VNA's board.

"That's how I got on the board of the organization and eventually became the president: through her motivating inspiration."

"A lot of people are not aware of the breadth of the things the VNA began during her time there," Merrill added, noting that the Haven Assisted Living Facility in Hayden and the Rollingstone Respite House were projects initiated by Birch, each one of the few of its kind in the area.

That breadth of experience in a rural area led to her appointment by Hickenlooper as the executive director of the Colorado Department of Health Care Policy and Financing. She said the Northwest Colorado community was a great springboard for her statewide position.

"As a community activist, you get a lot of odd bedfellows trying to move to a common goal," Birch said. "Certainly in the rural section, you have to look across the sectors to try and bring talent together to keep people open minded about how the work gets done. It leaves a lot of room for innovation and creativity."

Brown attested to Birch’s innovative streak.

"Sue is a very dynamic person," Brown said. "She's really great about hiring good people and then giving them a big challenge and then letting them rise to that challenge. It was very effective and continues to be."

During her tenure at the helm of the VNA, Birch was able to expand programs to include more community access, Brown said. "From prenatal to end-of-life," she said, "all the programs were geared toward helping people live their best lives."

Merrill said Birch's legacy in the Yampa Valley is twofold: advocacy for the elderly and care for the underserved in Northwest Colorado.

"In rural America, the options for senior citizens are relatively few. I think she's always kept her focus on the needs of the rural areas. The Aging Well program is characteristic of that," Merrill said, referring to the VNA program providing classes for men and women older than 50.

Merrill said now that Birch is at the state level she can continue to focus on her same areas of advocacy and expand to new areas, as well.

But no matter how far her advocacy reaches, Birch will remain a part of the fabric of Steamboat.

"It’s an incredibly tight community. It’s a beautiful valley," she said. The people "don’t shy away from hard work and dedication. I love to come home and relax with everybody and have some fun."

To reach Michael Schrantz, call 970-871-4206 or email

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