Paula Silha didn’t want to be a teacher, but she wanted to teach. So the 1981 Cashton High School graduate decided to be a health educator and studied community health at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, where she received her degree in 1985.
“I also didn’t want to be a health caregiver, but I wanted to educate the community to improve the health of the community,” Silha said. “The community has been my classroom.”
Silha, a health educator in the La Crosse County Health Department for 21 years, recently was awarded the Barbara A. Lange Local Practitioner Award given by the Wisconsin Health Education Network.
She was given the award for her leadership and advocacy for health education and health promotion in Wisconsin.
Silha is best known for her tobacco control and prevention efforts in La Crosse County. For 17 years, she coordinated the La Crosse Area Health Initiative, which advocated for smokefree environments. The group’s work led to a countywide smokefree restaurant ordinance.
“When I started out, people thought tobacco was just a habit, not contributing to a chronic disease or an addiction,” Silha said. “The right to smoke was paramount, and there was no support for those who wanted to quit.”
But the climate changed over time because the Environmental Protection Agency designated secondhand smoke as a cancer-causing agent, and the community became concerned about its effects.
The smokefree workplace movement started in the 1990s.
“A smokefree environment was controversial, but what kept me going was that 81 percent of people don’t smoke, and it is the right thing to do,” Silha said.
With the Wisconsin Legislative passing a smokefree workplace law, which goes into effect July 5, the La Crosse Area Health Initiative recently folded after accomplishing its goal of smokefree workplaces in the state.
“Health education and advocacy led to the good health policy,” Silha said. “When I started working on tobacco issues, I never imagined a smokefree Wisconsin, but I could dream of it happening.”
Brenda Rooney, a Gundersen Lutheran epidemiologist, said Silha led the health initiative from a floundering and unfocused group of people to one of the most productive tobacco coalitions in the state.
“She does much of this work behind the scenes, empowering others to be seen as the spokesperson,” Rooney said. “She is respectful of individual backgrounds, passions and priorities, and has a great perspective on how to motivate people for a common cause.”
Silha now leads a coalition for seven counties in western Wisconsin, the “7 C’s Health Initiative,” focused on tobacco prevention and implementation of the smokefree workplace law.
“She quickly grew into the coalition builder, leadership role that has become the trademark of her working career and which her sound reputation statewide is built on,” said Al Graewin, a fellow health educator in the county health department.
Graewin said Silha is an outstanding grant writer and has authored more than 30 grants with a successful track record for funding.
He said Silha has helped to implement programs that have stood over a decade and is a sought-after speaker and instructor at the local and state level in tobacco, coalition sustainability and car seat safety.
“What impresses me most is that Paula brings passion to what she does on a daily basis and actually carries this forward in all the organizations that she touches,” said Dr. Todd Mahr, a Gundersen Lutheran pediatric allergist. “This, in the long run, helps them be more productive and meet their health education goals.”
Rooney said Silha, as a member of the Population Health Committee of the La Crosse Medical Health Science Consortium, has been instrumental in assisting in the development of the strategic plan to make La Crosse County the healthiest county in Wisconsin by 2015.
Silha said she still gets excited about her job and her role in the community.
“The greatest thing is to make a positive difference in people’s lives, and I get to that every day whether helping a mom with a car seat, or working on clean air and tobacco issues,” Silha said.
“Healthy living is the key to making our community a better place to live,” she said.