JACKSON, Miss. (WJTV) – Growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, Rica Lewis-Payton was surrounding by a large family and by love in her grandparents’ home.

“I, along with my other three siblings and my parents, lived with them until my youngest sister was in the first grade. And so, there were lots of people in the house, and I’m still trying to figure out what those sleeping arrangements were,” Lewis-Payton said.

She always did well in school. Thanks to the advice of one of her teachers, she became the first person in her family to attend college.

“It was an English teacher for me. Dr. Mac is what we called her, but her name was Alice McPherson. And so, she said that I should not only go to college, but I needed to go to graduate school if I wanted to have a great job.”

Lewis-Payton secured a scholarship, packed her bags and headed to Talladega College.

“I learned that good was not enough. You had to be better and the best. And so, that’s what I’ve strived to do.”

She earned her master’s degree in health care management at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). She then went on to reach the top level of management at the VA Medical Center.

“I’m probably as surprised as some of the people I grew up with that I ended up being CEO of a hospital and then CEO of a region of hospitals, and now I do leadership consulting.”

Lewis-Payton said she was passionate about taking care of the men and women who fought for the freedoms we enjoy today. She was also appointed by former Governor Ronnie Musgrove to head the Mississippi Medicare system.

“Most brutal job I’ve ever had, but when I look back, we did a lot of great things. We enrolled children in the CHIP program, increased the amount of children that were covered by the Medicaid program.”

At the VA Medical Center in Birmingham and Jackson, one of Lewis-Payton’s top priorities was making sure her employees felt valued. In return, she was recognized for her work by receiving an award from former President Barack Obama.

She has accomplished a lot, but seeing her children grow and serve is something she cherishes most.

“For them to now be adults committed to service is just… it’s right up there with the Presidential Rank Award.”

Even though she’s retired, Lewis-Payton plans to keep serving the community.

“As long as I have breath in my body and as long as my mind is sharp, and I can give, I will give.”