Health Foundation marks 25 years

When Wesley Medical Center was sold to a private corporation in 1985, $200 million from the sale was put toward starting a foundation to address health issues in Kansas.

The philanthropic organization that emerged, now known as the Kansas Health Foundation, has since doubled the size of that initial endowment while giving out $440 million in grants and funding to numerous organizations and programs around the state.

"If you talk to people... in the public health arena, I think they would say we have dramatically affected and improved the public health system in the state of Kansas," said Steve Coen, the foundation's president and CEO.

The Kansas Health Foundation, originally known as the Wesley Medical Endowment Foundation, is celebrating 25 years supporting health initiatives in Kansas with a banquet today.

Coen, who has worked in various roles at the foundation since 1987, said the mission —"to improve the health of Kansas" — hasn't changed much in the past 25 years.

And the health issues Kansas communities were concerned about in the 1980s haven't changed much either. Things like heart disease, substance abuse, tobacco use and teenage pregnancy are all still issues, Coen said. New issues, like the increase in obesity rates around the state, have also arisen.

The foundation initially put much of its funding toward medical research, but Coen said its leaders realized that focusing on preventative initiatives would have the greatest impact on public health.

The foundation began putting its resources to use in projects around the state that take a preventative approach to public health, vice president for communications Chris Power said.

Over the years, the foundation has helped start the Kansas Health Institute, which provides health data to policymakers, the Tobacco Free Kansas Coalition and the Kansas Leadership Center.

It also has established 16 community health foundations around the state and has given more than $15 million to local organizations through its Recognition Grants program. It provides grants of $25,000 or less to fund programs like Operation School Bell, which provides clothing, coats and backpacks to students in Wichita public schools.

The partnerships formed with other organizations throughout the state are critical to the foundation's effectiveness, Coen said. The way he sees it, the foundation — which has 22 full-time employees — provides the resources that enable others to make an impact on the health of their community.

Power said many of the programs have gone on to become self-sustaining and continue to affect their communities without additional assistance from the foundation.

"We can provide the funding," Coen said. "But they're the ones that do the work. They're the ones who make it happen out in the field."

Coen said helping establish a Master of Public Health degree program and a nurse practitioner training program in the state are two of the foundation's biggest successes.

Foundation funding helped start the master's program at the University of Kansas. Its continued support, the most recent being a $1.8 million grant in 2008, has helped the school expand the program's curriculum.

The program, which currently has 100 students and has graduated more than 300 since it was started, trains the leaders who help develop policies to improve health in the state, said Suzanne Hawley, site director for the public health program at the KU School of Medicine-Wichita.

"We wouldn't be able to have the program, especially at this caliber with the ability to train this many people, without (the foundation's) investment and their continued developmental support," she said.

Coen said he thinks that Kansas is a healthier state than it was 25 years ago, and the foundation has played a role in that.

Because the foundation funds programs solely off the interest from the endowment, he said it will continue making an impact for the next 25 years and beyond.

"In perpetuity," he said. "That's what we hope it will be."

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