The Horizon Foundation, Howard County's largest philanthropic organization, has hired a new president and chief executive officer to replace founder Richard Krieg, who is retiring this week after 13 years at its helm.
Nicolette Highsmith Vernick, formerly senior vice president for program at the Center for Health Care Strategies, Inc. in New Jersey, has already begun transitioning into Krieg's position at Horizon, which is based in Columbia and targets community health issues by awarding grants. She officially begins on March 1, one day prior to her 41st birthday.
Her hiring ends a long national search for Krieg's replacement. Krieg had said he would like to step down no later than December.
"It was a lot of hard work, but we are very pleased with the final selection," said Shirley Collier, chairwoman of the foundation's board of trustees.
Krieg, 64, expressed similar thoughts.
"She was far and away my top choice of the finalists, and she brings a tremendous background, not only in community health but also at the national policy level," Krieg said.
The foundation said in a statement that Highsmith Vernick is a "nationally recognized expert on publicly financed healthcare" who has led programs for major health organizations such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Commonwealth Fund and the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and who has been published and spoken publicly about health care issues.
"She brings a number of things that we are very excited about," said Collier, of Marriotsville. "She has a history of forming strategic relationships with institutions around the country, and that is something that we have been wanting to do for a while, to leverage the foundation's resources with those of others that are attempting to address the same issues so that we can have a bigger impact in Howard County."
The foundation's four-part agenda, according to its Web site, includes improving health by reducing risk factors; harnessing research and information and advocating for change; strengthening partnerships, including among government, educational institutions and the faith community; and measuring and improving performance of its own operations and the operations of its grantees.
In its first 10 years, according to a 2008 report, the foundation made more than 300 grants totaling almost $30 million. Its top grant recipients were Howard County General Hospital and the Howard County Health Department.
Collier said the foundation has often been viewed as a health-care provider rather than an organization focusing on preventive health and overall wellness, and the board hopes Highsmith Vernick's knowledge of the "determinants of health" will help the foundation more clearly define itself.
For her part, Highsmith Vernick said she is excited to begin work with a foundation with such a community focus.
"The foundation has a unique role in the community, to help people think about prevention, living without illness, healthy lifestyles, healthy eating, healthy drinking," she said.
She said she has been working with organizations on a national level for 20 years, and hopes to leverage resources around the country to continually improve how the foundation serves the county locally.
"The foundation speaks to my sense of mission," she said.
Highsmith Vernick has a bachelor's degree in history from the University of Texas and a master's degree in public administration from American University. She joined the Center for Health Care Strategies in 1999.
She and her husband, Chris, are in the process of relocating to the Turf Valley Overlook neighborhood from Philadelphia with their two kids — Zachary, 5, and Ellie, 4 — who Highsmith Vernick said are very excited about the move.
"I told them that they would have the opportunity to have a big back yard, and they were sold," she said with a laugh.
Collier said Highsmith Vernick's youth and energy will help the foundation thrive.
"She's fabulous," Collier said. "She's very energetic, smart, smart, smart, but very warm, a very warm person," Collier said. "That was a big factor as well. We knew people would just be drawn to her, would be attracted to her, just because of her energy."
When Highsmith Vernick arrives in March, she will join the board in completing the "strategic planning process" it began this month, and which takes place every three years, Collier said.
A major goal in the process this year is to determine ways for the foundation to better communicate with the community, Highsmith Vernick and Collier said.
"There are still misunderstandings about our mission, so we think that with her coming on board, it will be an opportunity for us not only to communicate out to the community, but also to give the community an opportunity to talk to us," Collier said. "We're going to do a lot more listening than may have been perceived in the past."
As for Krieg's departure, Collier said it comes with mixed emotions.
"Everybody loves Rich, and he will be missed, but you know, he deserves to retire just like anybody who has worked for 35, 40 years," Collier said.
Krieg has said he will continue working on health issues in the community during his retirement, will likely get involved with other local organizations, and is looking into doing work in international health along with his wife, Judy, who is a retired physician.
Though he's still "on call" in case the foundation and its staff need anything from him, he said, he doesn't expect any problems under Highsmith Vernick.
"It's very good to see that the person who's going to follow in your footsteps is such an excellent person," he said.