Second SVdP registered dietitian wins Maricopa County 'Preceptor of the Year'

Center for Family Wellness' Maria Silva demonstrates commitment to clinical education

For the second time in three years, Maricopa County Department of Public Health named a St. Vincent de Paul registered dietitian its “Preceptor of the Year.”

The award, presented Aug. 30, recognizes outstanding professionalism, dedication and mentorship to dietetic interns of Maricopa County.

This year’s winner is Maria Silva, program manager of SVdP’s Ben & Catherine Ivy Foundation Center for Family Wellness. The center provides nutrition and exercise guidance and coursework for adults, families and children who are at risk for diabetes or pre-diabetes. It also runs a mentorship program for dietetic interns interested in working in community health.

“It was an honor,” said Maria, who runs the mentorship program in addition to teaching nutrition classes, doing consultations and building new collaborative partnerships. “I think it's amazing when you're very passionate about your work and the students appreciate that.”

Up until recently, Center for Family Wellness Director Elva Hooker, the 2016 Preceptor of the Year, ran the mentorship program. During the last couple of years, Maria has assumed this piece, mentoring five to 10 students a year.

“Maria is very passionate and outgoing” Elva said. “She is the first to find new and creative ways to collaborate with others to create meaningful experiences for our students and those we serve. She is an example of the capacity that health and community professionals have to make a true impact on our communities' health outcomes and build a network of support for those in need.”

Maria works with interns from the Maricopa County Dietetic Internship Program and Arizona State University Dietetic Internship Program. She pushes her interns to work hard and experience as much as they can while at SVdP. She also tries to give them skills that they will use in their personal and professional careers.

In one of the rotations during Thanksgiving week, the interns will help with the Food Reclamation Center, where they work in partnership with the other SVdP departments for three to four days to learn about how nutrition affects patients in every stage of life.

“Being able to give real-life scenarios — because you can go to school, you learn what the textbook says, but to actually come to the community and see it in action and then be part of it — that has been one of my favorite things to be able to show them,” said Maria, who stresses that community registered dietitians don’t just sit behind desks.

Maria and her group of interns also focus on finding ways to promote program awareness and offer nutritional advice, healthy recipes and healthy eating tips through writing articles distributed to the community.

The articles written by her group of interns under some guidance help deliver information that some people might not feel comfortable asking a doctor- or might not have access to a doctor to get their questions answered.

Maria says that having the interns create and distribute these scientifically-based resources makes it feel like they’re doing a good thing by reaching many more people than just those who visit the clinic.

Interestingly, Maria didn’t originally plan on becoming a registered dietitian.

Nearly ten years ago, Maria volunteered part time with the SVdP dental clinic while pursuing undergraduate degrees in psychology and integrated health at ASU. At the time, she wanted to go into dentistry.

After volunteering and becoming staff at the dental clinic, slower summers presented Maria the opportunity to spend some hours at the Center for Family Wellness. That was when her career path took a surprising new trajectory.

Elva, who at the time was the Center for Family Wellness program manager, saw great potential in Maria and offered her a job in the center. Maria accepted and to this day appreciates the in-depth health care the clinic and the center are able to provide patients.

“I think in dietetics, patients want to take it a step further,” she said. “It’s looking at choices to provide a healthier lifestyle. I fell in love with being able to teach people how to take care of their health by the choices they make every day.

“I am very proud of the work we do,” Maria continued, “because we know exactly what our goal is, which is differentiation management, and we do everything we can to make that happen in our community.”