Northwest Health Foundation President Focuses on Improving Health Outcomes
October 10, 2012 -- When Nichole Maher realized that today’s children are expected to have a lower life expectancy because of the growing rates of obesity she knew something had to be done.
“I don’t think any of us want to be part of a generation that allows that to happen on our watch,” said Maher, 34, who became president of Northwest Health Foundation in August. “The foundation has an opportunity to step up and provide leadership to reverse this trend.”
Recent statistics show that 20 percent of grade school children are obese in this country, which is triple the rate in 1980. The causes are self-evident – lack of exercise, high-calorie junk foods and poor diets.
Although the foundation can’t singlehandedly overturn this statistic, “we all have a shared destiny in the next healthiest generation,” said Maher. The foundation’s board is now engaged in a six-month strategic planning process to identify the top priorities to improve health outcomes.
“We recognize that we have limited resources,” she said. “But we want to look at ways to intervene as far upstream as possible, supporting communities to be at the table that have not been historically and change health outcomes. When a community has chance to be in charge of its own future and set its own priorities, it rises to the occasion. We all want our kids to be healthy; we want to have a voice; we want to be part of a community; we want to be connected.”
Communities with the highest diabetes or cancer rates often have the greatest need, as well as the elderly and disabled populations. And, at the same time, communities of color often have a disproportionate burden of negative health outcomes, yet are usually never asked to propose the solutions.
“Oftentimes they know better than us what would actually work in their communities,” she added. “So many times the conversation goes back to blaming those communities or making it sounds like it’s a series of lifestyle changes that people have done to themselves when we know in reality it’s really about where you live, what type of foods you have available to you, it’s about poverty, racism and historical inequities. The foundation and its board have never been shy about highlighting where there’s great opportunities and having very truthful conversations, and we’ll keep that spirit alive.”
She also intends to meet with grassroots leaders in rural areas such as Lincoln City and Reedsport in the coming months. “I want to make sure we’re hearing the voices from those communities.”
As she looks ahead, Maher’s very interested in having the foundation follow the lead of Meyer Memorial Trust and move some of its endowment fund into mission-based investments, by giving grants and loans to organizations that align with its core values.
“It’s something we’re very much considering and are in a learning process to make sure we fully understand what we’ll be committing to, but it’s a very high priority and could increase the amount of money given to communities,” she said. “I’d be very surprised if this isn’t part of our strategy moving forward. We have a board incredibly committed to social justice issues and a willingness to look differently at how we can make an impact.”
Maher also wants people to consider Northwest Health Foundation an organization that brings the community together, honoring its strengths and having a significant impact on health outcomes.
“Whether we choose to focus on obesity or environment or maternal health, I feel excited about all those options,” she said. “I know we can’t do everything but whatever we focus on I want to be able to say that this foundation and our partners did something to significantly improve the overall health of people in Oregon and southwest Washington and to be part of a movement across the state where everyone feels likes health and community wellness is not a matter of what industry or field you’re in, but that you’re connected to our vision.”
Before joining the foundation, Maher led the Native American Youth and Family Center in Portland for more than 11 years, an organization she grew from a staff of five and a budget of $200,000 to over 100 employers and a $10 million annual budget
Among her achievements, Maher created a campus for the Native American population, offering physical activities and started a catering company to serve healthier foods in the schools and elder programs.
“We actually went through a really amazing experience as a community; we still are the poorest ethnic group in the tri-county area and have experienced some of the worst health disparities,” said Maher. “Even though we could demonstrate the worst outcomes, oftentimes the solutions imposed totally missed our community.”
While at the center, Maher partnered with other organizations that shared the same vision. “That was a powerful experience for me because it demonstrated that when a community has a shared vision you can actually get a lot of things done, and when you’re not afraid to say the hard things or address the root causes you can also make change.”
Growing up in a very small village in southeast Alaska, Maher was home schooled by her mother who lacked a college education.
Later, when she attended a regular school in the fourth grade, Maher couldn’t read and was sent to special education classes. But she quickly caught up with help from great teachers.
“That experience taught me that the socio-economic class and the community you’re born into really dictates so many of the opportunities you had; it has nothing to do with your skills, your ambition, your abilities,” she said.
In college at Oregon State University, Maher majored in public health, graduating cum laude, later earning her master’s in public health. “I wasn’t a great student but have never been shy about speaking up and asking hard questions about equity and fairness. I’ve always been interested in having real conversations that will get us to make positive progress forward, and realized that if you show up on time and do what you say you want, it’s amazing what kind of leadership opportunities will emerge.”
Now, as she sits in her office at Northwest Health Foundation, Maher called this her dream job. “This foundation been very committed to social justice, committed to take risks and do courageous things and I knew the board and very impressed with them. It’s such an exciting time right now with healthcare transformation.