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Community Health Center Movement Mourns Leading Advocate, Rev. Jeannette J. Phillips, Founding Mother of Sun River Health

A visionary leader, pastor, Community Health Center network founder, and the matriarch of a large and growing family, the Reverend Jeannette J. Phillipshelped guide the emergence of patient-led community health care in New York State from its roots in the civil rights movement into the modern era. 

Reverend Jeannette J. Phillips

PEEKSKILL, NEW YORK – The Reverend Jeannette J. Phillips, a powerful force for change in community health care, died on Tuesday evening, surrounded by loved ones, after a lifetime of distinguished service. A visionary leader, pastor, Community Health Center network founder, and the matriarch of a large and growing family, she helped guide the emergence of patient-led community health care in New York State from its roots in the civil rights movement into the modern era. 

Rev. Phillips opened the Peekskill Area Ambulatory Health Care Center in 1975 along with three other African American founding mothers: the late Mary Woods, Willie Mae Jackson, and Pearl Woods, to provide access to health care for their community. With the other founders and long-time CEO Anne Kauffman Nolon, she grew the Peekskill Health Center–now Sun River Health–into one of the largest Federally Qualified Health Center networks in the United States, serving patients across the Hudson Valley, New York City, and Long Island at nearly 50 sites. 

Jeannette J. Phillips was born in Harlem, New York City in 1933. She attended the historic Booker T. Washington High School in Miami, Florida, where her academic and social engagements, including delivering an anti-Korean War graduation message, helped shape her future pursuits. Upon her graduation in 1955, Rev. Phillips accepted a job at the Veterans Hospital in Montrose, New York, where she became passionate about increasing access to quality health care. 

In 1956, she married Howard Phillips. When they were approached by a member of the Veteran’s Administration to provide housing for community veterans and seniors, they readily accepted and invited them into their own home. This gave Rev. Phillips a firsthand understanding of the unmet needs of residents in her own community.

In 1972, Rev. Phillips, along with Deputy Commissioner of the Westchester Health Department Dr. Phyllis Koteen, Dr. Ron Johnson of the New York Medical Academy at Grasslands in Valhalla, and Westchester Community Action Program Director Harriet Gelfan, spearheaded efforts to secure one of the last grants from the Office of Economic Opportunity to open the Peekskill Area Ambulatory Health Care Center. This work was completed with the late Mary Woods, Willie Mae Jackson, and Pearl Woods. 

With CEO Anne Kauffman Nolon, Rev. Phillips and the other founders responded to requests from surrounding communities to bring the same vision for accessible care to their own towns and counties: that health care is a basic human right for all, and not a privilege for some. The same community-led approach to growth continues for Sun River Health to this day.

Rev. Phillips was always candid about the challenges of running a non-profit health care provider, and the constant pressure to find or create funding to meet growing patient needs that could not be covered by federal or state supports—especially in the first few years of operation.

“We were able to raise money with local fundraising,” she said. “We had one particular group, the ‘Soul Sisters,’ who sold dinners, and pies, and cakes, and whatever else to help get money into the organization. You couldn’t get more grass roots than we were.”

After founding the health center, Rev. Phillips earned her Bachelor of Science with honors from Mercy College and went on to attend New York Theological Seminary, later completing four years of Conference Studies in the A.M.E. Zion Church. She was ordained as a Deacon, then an Elder in 1992, and became the pastor of the historic Woodside A.M.E. Zion Church in Stamford, Connecticut.

In 2015, Sun River Health’s Peekskill health center was renamed The Jeannette J. Phillips Community Health Center with many dignitaries present, including Dr. Jack Geiger, one of the founders of the Community Health Center movement, who opened the nation’s first two community health centers in Boston, MA and Mound Bayou, MS; Congresswomen Nita Lowey, and others. She was subsequently honored by the New York State Legislature in the State Capital. Rev. Phillips was the recipient of numerous other awards and recognitions, including the New York State Governor’s Award for African Americans of Distinction in 1994, The CHCANYS Catherine M. Abate Memorial award in 2018, and Crain’s Notable Women in Healthcare in 2019. Her most cherished recognitions were the Sojourner Truth Award, which she received in 1994, and The Harriet Tubman Award for her work as the Westchester District President of the Harriet Tubman Home Historical Society. 

Driven by her belief in the deep interdependence of housing and health care, Rev. Phillips served as the Executive Director of The Preservation Company, Inc. established by Sun River Health over thirty years ago to meet the housing needs of the Peekskill community. 

Rev. Phillips was the proud matriarch of her family, which includes her three daughters and two sons, her grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great grandchildren, over 100 in all. Rev. Phillips also shared her love of ministry with her husband, the Rev. Howard Phillips, both revered and sought after throughout the Hudson Valley as innovative and life-changing preachers. 

“It is my faith that keeps me grounded,” Rev. Phillips often said. “And it is my belief that God equips and strengthens those who are called to serve.”

Editor’s note: This article is sponsored by Sun River Health. Sun River Health is a network of 43 Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) providing primary, dental, pediatric, OB-GYN, and behavioral health care to over 245,000 patients annually.

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