DID YOU SEE? Longtime FHC employee Ella Ray retires after nearly half century on job

“My passion was to take care of the employees. I took care of their needs and benefits, and they saw me as a mother figure. I was about 40 when they started calling me ‘Mama Riley.’ I was insulted initially until somebody pulled me aside and said, ‘You don’t why they call you Mama Riley?’ I said, ‘No, maybe because I’ve been there the longest.’ They said, ‘No, that’s not it. You care for us.’” 

— Ella Riley

Ella Riley has retired after 47 years at Family Health Centers Inc. The human resource coordinator said she will miss the employees most.

“My passion was to take care of the employees,” she said. 

 

Riley is pictured being awarded for her 45th work anniversary at Family Health Centers Inc. in 2018 by FHC Chief Executive Officer Leon Brunson Sr. 

A staunch professionalism combined with an ability to provide a listening ear, solid advice and fun-loving humor has served Ella Riley well over the past 47 years as an employee of one of the state’s largest community health centers.

She has retired as human resource coordinator of Family Health Centers Inc. after she began her career with the agency nearly half a century ago. She retires as the longest-serving employee — and third oldest. It is the employees that she will miss most.

“My passion was to take care of the employees. I took care of their needs and benefits, and they saw me as a mother figure. I was about 40 when they started calling me ‘Mama Riley.’ I was insulted initially until somebody pulled me aside and said, ‘You don’t why they call you Mama Riley?’ I said, ‘No, maybe because I’ve been there the longest.’ They said, ‘No, that’s not it. You care for us,’” Riley said.

 “That’s the type of thing I love doing. And if they had personal problems, they’d come to me and say, ‘I need to talk to you.’ My first thing to them is, ‘OK, the door is shut and here’s these four walls. Whatever you tell me is in confidence, you’re not going to hear that again. The only time you’re going to hear it is if you told it yourself,’” she said.

Family Health Centers Inc. began as the Orangeburg County Consumer Health Council, which was founded in September 1969 and was chartered in January 1970.

Family Health Centers now has its main Orangeburg site on Magnolia Street in Orangeburg, along with six satellite sites in Denmark, Vance, Holly Hill, Norway, St. Matthews and St. George. Adult medicine, pediatrics, podiatry, OB/GYN and dental are its services.

Riley started with the agency, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, on Jan. 2, 1973, at the age of 23. She will turn 70 later this year.

“I started as a secretary. I was the secretary for the executive director. Back during that time, they called them the project director, and he was W.H. Winborne. After that, I went to be a liaison person between the administration and the providers. Then I went on to become the executive secretary. After executive secretary, I did payroll, purchasing and personnel,” Riley said.

She added, “In ’86, I went just to personnel. I stayed as personnel officer from ’86 to ’93. Then from there, I served as the benefits coordinator. They changed the name from that to HR coordinator.”

The Orangeburg native has served through several administrations, seeing changes in the leadership styles of each executive director.

She recalled when administrative offices used to be Amelia Street before moving to Treadwell Street, where they stayed until September of 1982. The agency would later locate at its present site on Magnolia Street in Orangeburg.

“Winborne, who was our project director at that time, was our first visionary. What he wanted was to put everything in one place, a one-stop shop, because in Orangeburg we had our first (medical) site at 404 Whittaker Parkway. We also housed the dental unit in an attached mobile unit. We also had the podiatry on Doyle Street,” she said, noting that it was Winborne’s vision to house everything from optometry and OB/GYN to pharmacy services in one place.

Riley said the 1986 arrival of executive director Carolyn Emmanuel, another visionary, brought continued change.

“She was able to pick up just where Winborne left off. She was the one that built the OB/GYN side. She also built what at that time was what we called the urgent care side. One was done in ’90 and one was done in ’92. I can’t remember which, but that was a big change. You wanted to serve the underprivileged and the under-served people. At that particular time, we did mainly Medicaid and Medicare patients because the doctors in the area treated us like pure dirt, most of the doctors that we had to go to in the hospital,” Riley said.

“Winborne fought and fought. He had to fight the whites, the doctors and he also had to fight the blacks. I saw that, and I think that’s the reason why I know from where we came from to now. So when someone talks trash about Family Health Centers, I take that personally,” she said.

She said seeing the changes which were made and the growth in employees and satellite sites throughout the county was amazing.

She said current FHC chief executive officer, Leon Brunson Sr., who started in 2011, is a third visionary.

“Winborne was the type of person that believed in on-the-job training. Carolyn Emmanuel believed in on-the-job training plus education. Mr. Brunson believed in education … and there’s a lot of things he brought to the table with the buildings and grants,” Riley said.

The agency, for example, secured a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to build a new, free-standing facility in Denmark. The agency also broke ground early last year for what will be a new training center to offer opportunities for employee training, staff development, telemedicine and healthy meal preparation.

Riley said she grew close to several employees over her 47 years of service, giving many of them pet names such as “Speedy,” “Doll Baby” and “Home Wrecker.”

“You would think that they would say, ‘Don’t call me that. My name is so and so.’ But not they did not do that. They look forward to me calling them their pet name,” she said, noting that the thing she liked least about her job was not always having an administrative assistant.

“In benefits or as HR coordinator, it was more than just benefits that had to be done. There was a lot of stuff that I did other than doing loans, withdrawals, insurance and whatever dealt with coordinating meetings and that kind of stuff with my representatives. I had other things that I had to do like with FMLA, credentialing, making sure certain reports are done.

“Reports that come from the government had to be done, and you can forget, you can drop the ball somewhere. If I had more assistants, that would have made it back kind of perfect. Somebody else would have been there to help or make sure that that ball was not dropped,” she said.

After 47 years, though, she does not plan to stop working after retiring from FHC. The widowed mother of two grown children and three grandchildren plans on finding another job.

“I’m hoping not a full-time job. I’m not sure, but something else because I can’t stay home and sit real quiet. But I love TV. I love the soaps, and then I do love game shows,” said Riley, who also enjoys traveling.

She attends St. Paul Baptist Church in Orangeburg and thanks God for her journey.

“Oh, Lord, I thank God daily for his grace and mercy,” Riley said.

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