Burnett Finds Satisfaction Sharing Le Bonheur’s Story


Originally from Arkansas, Sara Burnett, director of community and public relations at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital, made her way to Washington, D.C., and East Tennessee before firmly planting her roots here in Memphis.

“I’m from Arkansas and went to D.C. when Clinton was president. Everyone from Arkansas worked for (former U.S.) Sen. (David) Pryor then,” she says. “It was a great experience right out of college, and I met my husband there.”

Once her husband completed law school in Knoxville, the pair headed back to his hometown to settle down, and Burnett says she quickly realized what a tight-knit community Memphis is.

The advantage of the city’s small-town, hospitable attitude worked fast for Burnett. Her first networking event landed her a job with an organization that ended up being the perfect fit.

“I had done my Junior League provisional year in Knoxville,” Burnett says. “When I moved here I went to a transfer reception and met a really nice woman who was the director of communications for Junior League at the time. We hit it off, and she said, ‘You need to call these people at Le Bonheur, I think they have a job.’

“I went to work there in ’99 and have been working here ever since. The funny thing is that the woman I met at the reception is now my boss,” she adds with a laugh.

Burnett’s warm personality and friendly nature make it easy to understand why communications is her field of choice. Her emphasis on strong professional relationships has made her network of trusted colleagues one to envy, and they’re never more than a phone call away.

“Being in the field for so long, people look to you for an answer as a mentor, which is hilarious to me,” she says. “No one knows the answers. You just figure it out as you go – similar to being a parent! I don’t have to know all the answers in my job, but I have to be able to call upon people who know how to get something done. And expanding your relationships to include those people is part of the friendliness of Memphis. It’s very family-friendly. For me that’s been so important.”

She credits current CEO Meri Armor’s mission for Le Bonheur as the fuel that drives not only her success but the hospital’s as well.

“You can’t argue with the mission,” she says. “Meri Armor is a woman CEO who has this very strong vision. It’s been a pleasure to watch the hospital grow. It’s kept its sweetness and charm, but the excellence is amazing. We’ve recruited all this talent into Memphis. Over the past five years we’ve recruited over 100 physicians and researchers to Memphis, and retained the ones we have. It’s been phenomenal.”

She also notes a distinct shift in the hospital’s needs during her time there. With children not being admitted for minor illnesses like they might have been years ago, the hospital has been led to a focus on preventive care.

“We have a whole community outreach division that’s working on these preventive care opportunities – home visitation to help with infant mortality, asthma care and high-risk kids with asthma who should be in school,” Burnett says. “Meri always says kids should be at home, or outside playing and in school, just being kids. They shouldn’t be in the hospital. So that’s our goal: to keep kids healthy so they can keep on being kids.”

While preventive measures are a logical correlation between keeping children healthy and shortening hospital stays, it’s not always that simple when it comes to the funding of these nontraditional programs.

“We’ve been working with our clinical partners, community partners and funders to get our asthma program funded, as an example,” she explains. “It was originally funded by a federal innovation grant. The program worked well, and we could prove it. But at that point, the funding ramp was over, so Le Bonheur funded it for a year (to keep it going). Now we’re going out trying to get funders to make sure it can continue to move forward.”

No matter the challenge at hand, Burnett insists it’s all been more than worth it.

“As a nonclinical person, it’s interesting to watch,” she says. “And the national attention that’s coming in is great. We’re one of the Top 20 Best Children’s Hospitals, secured a Leapfrog designation and nursing magnet designation, as well as trauma verification. Meri has been using U.S. News survey as a roadmap for improving, which has made us very successful. We’ve been intentional about checking things off the list.”

Sara Burnett is a graduate of New Memphis’ Fellows program. Learn more at newmemphis.org.

*This article originally ran in The Memphis Daily News.