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New foundation leader brings pro-active approach

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By Merrill Wolf

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – When Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast last August, Kathy Higgins, like so many others, immediately looked for ways to help its victims.

As vice president of community relations for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina, the state’s largest health insurer, she coordinated the nonprofit’s relief efforts.

Those efforts included helping members living in the disaster area to access health care, donating $100,000 to the American Red Cross, instituting a regular employee blood drive, and providing clothing and money to evacuees who relocated to North Carolina.

But the hurricane’s full impact on Higgins did not become clear until after she was named president of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation in November.

One of her first actions was to announce a new grants program aimed at encouraging emergency-preparedness in North Carolina.

Higgins says the state shares many characteristics with areas affected by Katrina and has a responsibility to learn from it.

“We are prone to the same things – tornadoes, hurricanes,” she says. “And our most vulnerable populations are not unlike those in Katrina-impacted areas.”

Under Higgins’ leadership, the $75 million foundation redirected $300,000 originally intended for another grant category to help nonprofits and other agencies develop plans to serve the state’s children, elderly, chronically ill, low-income and non-English speaking populations during a natural disaster.

Applications are being accepted until March, and the foundation plans to award the one-year grants by June 1, when the 2006 hurricane season begins.

The program is one example of the pro-active stance that Higgins wants to characterize the foundation, which focuses on providing access to health care for the uninsured and underinsured, reducing racial and ethnic health disparities, and promoting physical activity.

Kathy Higgins

Job: President, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation; Vice President of Community Relations, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina

Born: New Jersey, 1959

Education: B.A., education and psychology, West Virginia Wesleyan College; M.A., exercise physiology and community health education, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

Family: Single

Recently read: “What Women Really Want: How American Women Are Quietly Erasing Political, Racial, Class, and Religious Lines to Change the Way We Live,” by Celinda Lake, Kellyanne Conway and Catherine Whitney

Hobbies: Volunteering, cycling

Inspiration: Bob Grezcyn, CEO, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina; “He inspires us to live by our principles.”

It has distributed more than $16 million in grants since its creation in 2000.

Higgins believes the foundation should be forward-thinking and model the qualities it asks grantees to embody, such as collaboration and accountability.

Those are key ideas behind its “Signature Programs,” a set of partnerships developed by the foundation and different nonprofits to address particular health needs.

The Be Active Kids program, for instance, brings together experts in early-childhood development, nutrition and physical fitness to teach child-care providers how to help preschool children learn to make healthy choices about food and activities.

Its curriculum is now used in 6,000 child-care centers across the state.

Higgins says early results of a formal evaluation to be completed later this year suggest that the six-year-old program positively influences children, in part by making them more likely to choose healthful foods.

She plans to bring that collaborative approach to other areas of health care.

“We really can make a difference in elevating the discussion about access to care and the uninsured,” Higgins says. “We need multiple players providing multiple solutions.”

One key role for the foundation, Higgins says, is helping to build the capacity of nonprofit organizations.

“I really am passionate about helping nonprofits that are aligned with our mission,” she says.

Twice a year, the foundation’s Healthy Community Institute for Non-Profit Excellence offers two-day training courses in strategic planning, board development, fundraising and other essentials of nonprofit management.

“If we help them be more viable and therefore more fundable,” she says, “we will have helped them very much.”

Higgins credits the three months she spent last year on a fellowship in Australia and New Zealand with giving her other new ideas about how philanthropists, government and nonprofits can work together to address health-care needs.

She says the experience also refreshed her appreciation for how effectively these different actors already cooperate in North Carolina and the United States.

Getting away, she says, helped her “value what we do have here, how caring and giving and thoughtful we are. We have many needs, and we are solution-oriented people.”

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