Alumnus Dr. Jarrett Brunny makes life better for Virginia children

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USF College of Public Health graduate Dr. Jarrett Brunny is changing the game for children in coastal Virginia where he is director of United for Children, part of the nonprofit United Way of South Hampton Roads.

“There are 22,000 children living in extreme poverty in the Tidewater region near Norfolk, which fits into a national picture of more than 10 million children in situations with tangible economic challenges,” Brunny said, who earned his master of public health degree in community and family health in 2012. “We saw it in Tampa Bay as well—you don’t need to drive far to see opportunities for applying principles of public health for the benefit of children and families.”

Brunny was born in Pennsylvania but spent most of his childhood in Gainesville, Fla. He attended the University of Florida for his undergraduate degree, majoring in anthropology with a minor in geography. He later returned to UF for his doctorate in public health, focusing on factors influencing obstetricians’ and midwives’ use of substance abuse screening tools during prenatal care. While there, he received a research award for examining childhood suicide programming in Florida and pathways for evaluation.

Brunny became interested in public health though family friend and mentor Otto von Mering, an anthropologist by training and an expert in gerontology.

“Otto was a pioneer and led early studies linking culture to our perception of health, specifically how we value our elders and the lived experience of aging,” Brunny explained. “He opened my eyes to the bridges between anthropology and public health. In fact, other than the framework of a medical model, I had no awareness of public health as a field prior to that critical mentorship.”

Jarrett Brunny, PhD, MPH (Photo courtesy of Dr. Jarrett Brunny)

Brunny was drawn to the USF COPH because “it’s right at the top of the field for both research and practice,” he said. “Among Florida public colleges, USF is a step ahead. There are systems in place to support, guide and inspire students. You can find your niche here, and there are experts who can set you on a career path.”

Brunny and his wife, Bethany, also a COPH graduate, experienced that support first hand when their son was born over winter break in 2011, while they were both pursuing their MPH degrees.

“I was back at school in two days and Bethany was back in two weeks,” he said. “We wanted to start a family while we were getting our degrees, and USF was completely supportive. We were accommodated in every way. Looking back on it, I don’t know how we did it. Likely the tenacity of youth … and our professors were receptive to high quality work, even if we had to call in from time to time or ask other students to record sessions.”

In his time at USF, Brunny worked with the first-in-the-nation Students with Diabetes group, helped with a study that examined how pediatric patients transition to the adult health care system and interned with the Florida Department of Health and the Hillsborough County Health Department on lead poisoning prevention in children.

After his USF COPH graduation, Brunny launched his career in public health as executive director of United Way of Putnam County, in Northeast Florida.

Dr. Brunny and volunteers offering words of encouragement to children in vulnerable community schools. (Photo courtesy of Brunny)

“It involved collaborating with a lot of players, and that’s a challenge you don’t always get training in when you’re in an academic environment,” Brunny explained. “It’s so simple to say, ‘This is my goal and this is my target population. These are the methods of analyses used and everything worked out perfectly.’ But once you’re out in the field not only do you have 15 different missions to align with community partners, you have 15 different reports with 15 different degrees of quality and performance measurement, not to mention local politics, agendas, and disparate views on some of the endemic challenges we face. Things often don’t work out on paper like they might in a master’s class.”

United Way for Children, the initiative he currently directs, is a test cause for collective impact. “United Way has been strategizing on how to offer value beyond being a pass-through organization for funds. The obvious answer was to share vision, share data, and share language on what it means for our communities to thrive,” he stressed. “Our partners invest heavily in educational initiatives as a common space from which more latent population indicators may be addressed.”

Dr. Brunny and volunteers handing out school supplies to children in need. (Photo courtesy of Brunny)

Brunny added, “Research shows that if you are reading by third grade, you have a higher chance of graduating high school. What links to early literacy? We go back and look at kindergarten readiness. From there we look at developmental delays in early childhood milestones, then we look at maternal and child health. We really are trying to have a comprehensive approach and be very intentional with what we are doing in the community. When you see a child with developmental delays whom you helped get into an intervention program and then you see that child reading—that’s the type of achievement I’m proud of, and it’s not too far of a reach to say this is the core of equity on a longitudinal scale.”

Alumni Fast Five

What did you dream of becoming when you were young?

A marine biologist. I’ve passed this dream on to my children.

Where would we find you on the weekend?

In a state or national park, hiking with my family.

What was the last book you read?

“The Road,” by Cormac McCarthy

What superpower would you like to have?

Breathing underwater, and I don’t mean with scuba gear.

What is your all-time favorite movie?

“Sneakers,” with Robert Redford. I could watch it over and over again, with second mention to “The Princess Bride.”

Story by Donna Campisano, USF College of Public Health


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