When Ashley Coffield accepted the position as president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Greater Memphis Region last spring, it was a sort of homecoming for the Rhodes College graduate.
Only, she didn’t have to move at all.
Coffield had been working for Partnership for Prevention in Washington, via telecommuting, since 2001, but she says, “I wanted a job in Memphis, that was a big part of the decision. I wanted to work in my hometown. … I really wanted to contribute to Memphis.”
Originally from Hot Springs, Ark., Coffield came to Rhodes and was one of the first urban studies majors at the school. But it wasn’t her first experience with the city
“I had grown up coming to Memphis for special occasions and it seemed like a magical place to me,” she said. “I fell in love with Memphis while I was there.”
As a student with no insurance and very little income, she had been a patient of Planned Parenthood and was so impressed with the organization’s “compassionate and confidential” care that she became a volunteer health educator. It sparked an interest and set her on the path of a 20-year career in public health.
After graduating from Rhodes in 1992, she received a Master in Public Administration from Texas A&M University, and went to work in Washington. “I worked for organizations that were really looking broadly at disease prevention and health promotion policy and practices, so I was definitely the wonky policy person looking at legislative governmental policy as well as private policies that employers use to keep their populations healthy.”
Her expertise grew to include worksite wellness, clinical preventive services including their impact and cost effectiveness, and developing policies and practices for state health departments.
In 2001, she and husband Mac, an attorney with International Paper, were ready to start a family and chose to do so in Memphis. She left her job as CEO with Partnership for Prevention, but was soon contacted by the board asking her to continue to work for the organization, though not as a chief executive, and telecommute.
At the time, she felt she was a pioneer in telecommuting and loved working from her Midtown home, so it was a conflicting choice when the board of Planned Parenthood, of which she was a past member, asked her to work with the search committee to replace retiring CEO Barry Chase.
“I had grown up coming to Memphis for special occasions and it seemed like a magical place to me.”
“I said I would, but let me think about it because I might want to apply,” she said. “So I spent a few weeks thinking about it and then decided to throw my hat in.”
Her hat was caught and she was chosen from the national search. Though the thought of giving up the convenience and luxury of working from home might have made the internal debate a perplexing one, the ultimate reason for her decision is not at all difficult to understand.
“I’ve loved Planned Parenthood since I was a patient,” she said. “I feel strongly about the mission, that people of all ages come to us because they know they’ll be cared for compassionately and confidentially, and that we provide affordable health care and our doors are open to everyone.”
Helping patients to enroll in health insurance is a major part of Planned Parenthood’s mission and one that will expand access to reproductive health care. A priority under Coffield’s leadership is for the organization to educate their patients and the community on the Affordable Care Act and its promise to “help make quality health insurance more affordable by providing subsidies in the form of tax breaks to people based on their income and their family size.”
For the future, she hopes to expand services offered in the health center and into more primary and preventive care. Federal money tied to their Title X funding in the form of a grant from the Office of Population Affairs in the Department of Health and Human Services has recently been acquired. It will be used to expand HIV prevention services such as testing, linking patients to care, counseling, and the condom distribution program, Free Condoms Memphis, which offers condoms at 60 locations throughout Shelby County. The model program has given out 60,000 since February.
Coffield is happy to be able to continue calling Memphis home, and excited to finally be working within her community. She feels as though she’s come full circle, from a patient and volunteer while in college, to the president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Greater Memphis Region helping to affect a change for the better.
“I’ve always felt very passionately about this organization,” she said. “And I felt like I could work here with great conviction and bring a lot of energy and passion to it.”