10 things you didn't know about Horizon Foundation's Nikki Highsmith Vernick

In March 2012, Nikki Highsmith Vernick took the helm of the Horizon Foundation, an independent philanthropy in Columbia dedicated to improving the health and wellness of people living or working in Howard County. During her nearly five-year tenure, she has introduced initiatives such as Howard County Unsweetened, which aims to reduce sales of sugary drinks.

Here, Highsmith Vernick recently shares some interesting personal facts, like her family's focus on fitness and the benefits of marrying a good cook.


1. She considers herself a "social entrepreneur."
Highsmith Vernick believes that "big social problems require new thinking and new models." Philanthropic organizations such as the Horizon Foundation can provide seed money for projects that enhance community life, she says.

2. She thinks Columbia and her hometown of Houston have something in common.
Texas has a distinct sense of place and culture that influenced Highsmith Vernick when she was growing up in Houston. Columbia embodies a similar sense of belonging and community, she says, and it's a place where everyone is rooting for you to succeed.

3. She inherited her father's love of the outdoors.
Her father, Jim Highsmith, is a software management consultant who enjoys mountaineering. He took her and her best friend to visit 10 national parks in two months after they graduated from college in 1993. On one leg of their trip, they used ice axes to climb a glacial waterfall on Mount Baker in the North Cascades of Washington state.

4. She's an avid runner.
Highsmith Vernick — who lives with her husband, Chris, and kids, Zach, 10, and Ellie, 8, in Ellicott City — spends a lot of time running around Centennial Lake and doing half-marathons. The family lived in Philadelphia for 10 years before moving to Maryland, and she regularly took part in the Broad Street Run, a 10-mile race along the city's main north-south artery.

5. She's also partial to water sports.
Because she's a Pisces, one of the three water signs on the zodiac chart, she says she naturally loves water. She has gone swimming with seals and kayaked in Mexico, and she regularly fished, crabbed and shrimped while growing up. Her family even celebrated Easter on a nearby beach, and the kids hunted for plastic eggs hidden among the sand dunes.

6. Vienna is her favorite international city.
There are so many things to love about Austria's capital, she says — arts, culture, the Alps and sipping coffee with pastries, to name a few. "I love the hubbub and the vibrancy of cities in general, and the fact there are always people about."

7. Jigsaw puzzles fill a void.
When cold weather sets in, she occasionally spends time putting together 1,000-piece photographic puzzles of outdoor scenes. She remembers one of hot-air balloons as particularly challenging yet relaxing at the same time.

8. Her reading tastes are eclectic.
She has read every novel by Wallace Stegner, often called the "dean of Western writers," and enjoys the fiction of Isabel Allende, a Chilean-American writer and human rights activist whose works often contain elements of the "magical realist" tradition. Allende's best-selling book, "The House of the Spirits," is a favorite.

9. The family can often be found at Kiwanis-Wallas Park.
Since both of her kids play baseball, the entire family spends a lot of time at the fields off Route 144. "Ellie tried softball but wanted a bigger challenge, so she decided to give baseball a try and just went out and killed it," she says.

10. She and her husband buy local.
Chris is "a great Italian cook," frequently preparing homemade pasta and sauce made from scratch. The family travels to local farms for fresh produce most weekends during the growing season and buys their meats from a farm stand near their home. And no, they don't drink soda.