Friends of Public Health in Coos County

A lighthouse on the Oregon coast.

County public health agencies throughout Oregon are struggling to deliver vital services, especially in rural counties hit hardest by the recession, and the recent loss in dedicated federal timber revenues.

In Coos County, volunteers actually collected spare change for childhood immunizations—just one of the ways a local non-profit group raised close to $10,000 for the county health department. The funds plugged holes in key services and kept Coos County commissioners from handing over public health services to state government.

Now, officials across Oregon and in other parts of the country are paying attention to how this rural coastal county created this non-profit, modeled after Friends of the Library, to educate the general public and raise money for the health department.

When the idea to start a non-profit came to Frances Smith, Coos County Public Health administrator, and Molly Ford, a retired public health educator, it made perfect sense. They called the new organization, for which Ford serves as president, Coos County Friends of Public Health.

“Local service clubs are limited to funding non-profit 501(c)3 organizations,” Smith said. “I’ve been trying to argue that a government-run health department is also a non-profit —  it’s a public non-profit.”

Northwest Health Foundation (NWHF) is proud to have helped draft the organization’s by-laws, and to have organized several meetings with board members to help clarify the organization’s goals and complete legal paperwork. The first annual meeting of the Friends was held on January 16, 2008, and by-laws were approved and officers were elected. 

NWHF also helped support a local ballot measure initiated by the Friends of Coos County Public Health in 2008. The measure would “impose $450,000 each year for three years to fund operational costs of County Public Health Department beginning in 2009 (which could) cause property taxes to increase more than three percent.”

Although the measure didn’t pass, Coos County Commissioner Kevin Stufflebean was optimistic. “It was supported by more voters than any other ballot initiative last year,” he said.

He tipped his hat to the non-profit. “Had it not been for their help and support we would have been in severe trouble last year.”

“You hear how important healthcare is,” Stufflebean said. “But you don’t hear anybody talking about the public health system, which is an essential backbone to individuals in poverty.”