Rick Kozin Has the Floor

A New Yorker Finds His Place and Passion for Health In Polk County

Rick Kozin Has the Floor

We recently talked with Rick Kozin, Director of the Polk County Health Department and he shared the highlights and insights about his life, our community and the BUILD Health Challenge grant.

Q: Before we talk about how big of a deal the BUILD Health grant award is for Des Moines and its potential to change and improve lives in our community and throughout the country – let’s talk a little about your life. Where did you grow up and what path did you take to being here?

A: I was born in New York and raised on Long Island, a place that is very different than Des Moines. It’s a lot more congested, expensive and a faster pace of life – which growing up was fine, but none of it sounds appealing to me anymore. My brother and sister are still there and are both accountants and work together. In fact, they took over my dad’s accounting firm.

Q: Did you ever think about being an accountant?

A: I’m the oldest, so naturally my father wanted me to follow in his footsteps and possibly join his firm. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do so I went to work for him. At the end of a year we both agreed accounting was not for me. (laughing)

Following graduate studies in Political Science I worked as a Community Organizer in various cities for 20 years before moving to Des Moines in 1999 and joining the Polk County Health Department in 2001 as a Health Planner. Then three years ago I was appointed the Director.

My dad has since passed away and while he never understood what I did, he understood why I did it, and made sure I knew he was very proud of me.

Q: I understand you were part of the triumvirate that came together through many discussions, emails and coffee chats about health and housing. Give us a little background on where your staff was in its thinking and how this all came together.  

A: We know that health isn’t built in hospital rooms, it’s created in communities. Over the years, on the county health side, we have worked remediating lead-based paint in homes because of the obvious health risks with lead poisoning. Our staff told me over and over there were other health hazards in the homes. Clearly the home environment has a significant impact on a person’s health so we began to look for angles to act on what we knew or suspected. 

At the same time, Suzanne Mineck of the Mid-Iowa Health Foundation was looking for opportunities to help support better health outcomes related to the home environment and Eric Burmeister of the Polk County Housing Trust Fund was wondering if there was anything else his organization could be doing to improve the quality of life through affordable housing. We talked about where our missions overlapped, how we could share resources and by the time the BUILD Health Challenge opportunity was put on the table, we had a vision and plan to compete for one of the grants.

As you know, these grants don’t write themselves and this particular competition also called for a video submission. The yeoman’s work was done by Josh Hellyer and Claire Richmond of the Housing Trust Fund and I continue to be amazed by and appreciative of the talent in this community and the work these two young professionals did to help our community win this large grant.

Q: There were more than 1,000 community initiative leaders on the initial grant information call and of that number 300 or so applied. Anecdotally it was shared that the stumbling block for many was getting their local health provider or hospital to participate – and here in Des Moines, our three largest all stepped up. Why do you think that is?

A: Three reasons – first, this community has a long history of cross-discipline networks and discussions. As a result it is easy to identify the right partners and get them together quickly when an opportunity like BUILD Health presents itself. Second, there are very few communities who have the collaborative spirit we have here. At every turn and across all lines you see people striving to work together, such as public and private organizations, nonprofits and businesses. And third, perhaps most importantly, the people of this community look for opportunities to lead – we are not content to wait or to follow others.  

Q: Has there ever been a comparable project in Polk County?

A: There have been a number of smaller efforts to address housing-related health issues over the years. We have worked with housing partners on lead remediation. We have worked with the American Lung Association on some projects to address asthma. Mercy did some work with the Lung Association as well. But, in the 15 years I have been with the health department there has never been a partnership this broad that has made an investment this large in one strategically chosen area of our community. This particular project will provide an opportunity to take "to scale" the lessons learned from the earlier efforts and lay the foundation for even more ambitious projects in the future.

Q:  In closing, your mission at the Polk County Health Department is, “Creating the conditions for all people to live healthy lives by engaging residents, reducing health disparities and attending to the needs of our most vulnerable families.” I can see why your dad is proud of you and what you and your staff make possible.  Is there a particular saying or quote of inspiration that provides you further guidance?

A: Yes, Mahatma Gandhi’s “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” The funders of the BUILD Health Challenge clearly have a vision of a world that calls for change and are serving as a catalyst for a level of collaboration unlike what many of us have ever experienced. This grant and the matching funds give us a great start on the change we wish to see in our community when it comes to healthy environments in a most important place – the place we call home.