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COPH student turns disability into her life purpose

Because of her advocacy on behalf of people with multiple sclerosis and other autoimmune diseases, COPH student Sarah Thomas caught the attention of Soiree magazine, which recognized her in the feature, “28 Women to Watch,” in the June issue. And rightly so.

C O P H Student Sarah Thomas

Sarah Thomas
Photo credit: Courtesy of Little Rock Soiree

Ms. Thomas is clear on her life goals: find a cure for MS, organize a pageant for girls with disabilities, and lead a life that inspires others to live fully regardless of their challenges.

With a cheerful laugh, she recounted the day she was told that she had MS.

“My parents told me that I had one day to feel down about it.” Despite many real challenges and what she calls her “MS days,” Ms. Thomas seems to have embraced those words with gusto.

Since that life-changing day in 2010, she has continued full-steam ahead, but says she now listens to her body about when it is time to rest or step back from her active schedule. That has not stopped her from enrolling in COPH to earn a master in public health degree or becoming a certified yoga instructor. Her yoga teachers encouraged her to become certified because she was such an ardent advocate for yoga’s health benefits.

“I am always bringing friends to class,” Ms. Thomas said. “Everybody has something, and yoga helps. I am always trying to make people feel better; life is too short. There is even yoga for people in wheelchairs.”

She encourages her “MS friends” to not let MS be a barrier to pursuing any life goal. Her advice: “Just because you have a disability, you can do things, you are smart, you are important, and you can do anything; you just have to make up your mind.”

True to that credo, she has her own goals set. After she earns an MPH degree, her next step will be earning a PhD in neurology with a focus on autoimmune diseases, MS and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), in particular. She also works at the UAMS Jackson T. Stephens Spine & Neurosciences Institute.

As for that life goal to organize a pageant for girls who have a disability, that arises from her own positive title pageant experiences.

A self-described “tomboy” who always loved sports, Ms. Thomas surprised friends and family when at age 21, she decided to enter a pageant contest, Miss Black and Gold, an event sponsored by the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity at her alma mater, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. She won. That was 2009. She went on to win three more titles – Miss Little Rock USA (2009), Miss Arkansas Essence (2009) and Miss Maumelle International (2010-2011).

She says she gained a lot from the pageants (besides that they were fun and helped pay for college).

“It helped prepare me as a public speaker and opened my eyes to a different world and different perspective on things,” Ms. Thomas explained.

“Pageants have a lot of good things about them. You get to meet brilliant and beautiful women from all over the world. But there is another demographic just as brilliant and just as beautiful.”

She wants the same life-affirming experience the pageants were for her, for girls who have a disability.

Meanwhile, she has taken what she gained from the pageants and put that to use. She is the founder of a local non-profit organization that assists individuals with MS or other autoimmune diseases in getting supplies or equipment they would not otherwise be able to afford. She estimates that so far the organization has passed on 20 wheelchairs and 15 walkers from donors to those who need them.

She also serves as a volunteer for the Ronald McDonald House.

Her good work did not go unnoticed. In 2013, Governor Beebe appointed Ms. Thomas to the Arkansas Governor’s Commission on People with Disabilities. She wants there to be an event in Arkansas every month that raises awareness about, educates, or serves persons with disabilities.

“Every month we need to do something for people with a disability all over the state, not just in Central Arkansas,” Ms. Thomas said. “They need to know we are there for them. A lot of people don’t know their options in their communities. They don’t have to move to Little Rock.”

She mentioned fundraisers on the horizon, a yoga-a-thon for one, which she has a hand in. She claims she is not quite the whirlwind of energy she once was. Despite this, she plans to run the 2016 Little Rock Marathon, dedicating each mile to fundraising to provide more supplies to MS patients.

Most importantly, she has learned how to delegate and pace herself. “This has taught me how to say, ‘Someone else can do this better than I can,’” Ms. Thomas said. “I am not really as busy as it looks like I am.”

COPH alumni new communications director for the Arkansas Department of Health

Director of the Office of Health Communications for the Arkansas Department of Health ( A D H ) Marisha DiCarlo, P h D

Marisha DiCarlo, PhD

Marisha DiCarlo, PhD, MPH, became the Director of the Office of Health Communications for the Arkansas Department of Health (ADH) in July, following the retirement of Cathy Flanagin. She is a graduate of the UAMS COPH, having earned an MPH with honors in 2010, specializing in Health Behavior and Health Education, and a PhD in Health Promotion and Prevention Research in 2014, specializing in obesity and stress management. She also holds a bachelor’s degree in English Writing with a minor in Communications from Loyola University, New Orleans. Dr. DiCarlo received postdoctoral training at Arkansas Children’s Nutrition Center where she assisted with research projects focused on the maternal programming of obesity.

Dr. DiCarlo previously worked at ADH as a health specialist, coordinating the ADH Tobacco Prevention and Cessation Program’s youth and schools initiative. She also served as the communications coordinator, and later the assistant director, for the Arkansas chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association.

In her new role at ADH, Dr. DiCarlo manages operations within the ADH Office of Health Communications. She is responsible for directing internal and external communications, including media relations and public health campaigns, and providing media training for the ADH, as well as other agencies, institutions and businesses. In addition, she serves as the public information officer for chemical emergency preparedness and is responsible for monitoring emergency drills with numerous governmental agencies.