The Isanti County Board on Feb. 5 accepted, with regret, the retirement of Kathy Minkler. Her last day in the office is April 25.
She said it was with “mixed emotions” when she wrote her letter of retirement to the board. Her retirement comes after 27 years with the county and 17 and a half years as director of Public Health.
“The time is right,” she said a few days after the board meeting. “When you’ve done this for 27 years, there’s emotion in the finality of it all.”
Commissioner Susan Morris accepted Minkler’s retirement with a “heavy heart.” She added, “I’ve really appreciated your leadership. You work tirelessly.”
When Minkler first started with the county in 1987, Public Health’s primary focus was home care for seniors. The shift toward maternal child health occurred about three years later, when she began making more visits to at-risk moms and teen moms and their new babies through a parenting program driven by state and federal dollars.
“We had always done this, but we focused on it more,” she said of the parenting effort. “By keeping moms and babies healthy, we keep families healthy. Parenting is learned from generation to generation. There was a lot of social science at that time for getting people (parents) off to a good start to avoid bad habits. We had to interrupt that process.”
Promoting prevention was Public Health’s primary goal, she added of a philosophy that holds true to this day.
In the years leading up to 1990, Minkler recalled how AIDS was perceived as a death sentence by many, though she also recalled the turning points through such prominent figures as NBA star Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Hollywood’s Rock Hudson who helped break the stereotypes and generate awareness, education and even funding for research of the disease.
Tackling teen pregnancy
As for Public Health’s reach in Isanti County, Minkler said grant funds for education in the community including schools and Area Learning Centers helped address a high teen pregnancy rate that occurred here in the early 1990s. From this, the Teen Age Parent program (TAP) was formed.
She remembered the group of concerned citizens, teachers, nurses and representatives from Cambridge Medical Center who started a coalition to tackle the teen pregnancy issue. As a result, students began to take a new course called Teen Survival at Cambridge-Isanti High School.
“Nancy Johnson (Teen Survival teacher) was very instrumental and an active partner in that coalition,” Minkler said. “She was the biggest advocate.”
Also at the time, the Outlook Family Planning Clinic opened a site in Cambridge, and local churches did a lot with education with teens, too, she added.
Results can take time, but those efforts from 20-plus years ago have seemed to make a difference.
“Our teen pregnancy rate today is lower than the state average and neighboring counties,” Minkler said. “It’s a good success story of a community coming together and coordinating the effort to put a dent in the rate. This has been a 20-year project.”
Meanwhile, the most recent Minnesota Student Survey (2011) indicated a decrease in sexual activity among high school seniors in the last 10 years, she noted, adding, “I think parents, churches and schools are talking about it with kids more.”
Youth and tobacco, alcohol and other drugs
By the year 2000, Public Health began to leave its home care for seniors effort behind due to other agencies and providers doing the same. So with money from the big tobacco settlement of the time, Public Health began to focus on youth and alcohol, tobacco and other drug issues and specifically restricting tobacco products to youth.
Grant funds allowed Public Health and other health officials to work with schools and students as young as third and fourth and fifth grades, and a curriculum on staying healthy and saying “no” to drugs was developed, Minkler said.
“We were trying to get to kids before they were tempted to use alcohol, tobacco and drugs,” she explained.
Seeing restrictions on e-cigarettes is Public Health’s latest project, while health professionals are advocating for regulations at the point of sale. For instance, if a store sells an e-cigarette product, it has to be treated the same as regular tobacco. Right now there are no restrictions on e-cigs, Minkler said.
“We’re seeing a nationwide surge of youth nicotine overdoses from e-cigarettes in the emergency room,” she pointed out.
By 2003, Isanti County Public Health got behind the Active Living by Design group that promoted bike and walking trails to help fight obesity and encourage physical fitness.
“It was one of the most fun programs I’ve ever been involved with,” Minkler said.
She remembered the time she got a call from local resident and Active member Bill Carlson who was looking for support from Public Health for a Robert Wood Johnson grant for the bike-walk trail that now connects Isanti and Cambridge.
“So we partnered with the bike trail effort with local cities, the county and schools, sat down and got (former Congressman Jim) Oberstar’s ear and we were successful,” Minkler recalled. “There were 900 applications nationwide, and they gave out 25 grants. We were one of them.”
Minkler said the group also was successful in having cities require sidewalk and bike trails in new housing developments, snowplowed sidewalks to keep people walking and walking path loops, trails and maps in all three major cities of the county.
“I noticed our obesity rate in 2003 was the same as the state average, but now we’re a couple of percentage points below the state average,” she stressed. “You can probably say we had an impact on it, but you need to continue to work.”
Minkler also is proud of Public Health’s partnership with the Ronald McDonald dental van, which comes to the county once a month to provide dental work for kids who don’t otherwise have the means to receive it. For those interested, they can call the Public Health office at 763-689-4071.
Is Minkler really ready to retire?
Her husband, Mike, entered retirement two years ago, and while her three sons are grown, she has six grandchildren scattered throughout two continents who wouldn’t mind a few more visits.
She can spend more time on her gardening hobby at home along the Rum River in St. Francis, and there’s fishing and the family cabin in northern Minnesota.
“He’s ready for me to retire and do things together,” said Minkler, thinking of her husband.
Her oldest son, Jason Cochran, who works for the Peace Corp., lives in Columbia, South America, with his wife and two boys, ages 4 and 2.
Her next oldest, Kevin, lives in Brooklyn Center, Minn., with his wife and two boys, ages 4 and 1.
Minkler’s youngest, Mike, is married with a 2-year-old boy and an 8-month-old daughter. They live in Pittsburgh.
“Jason and Mike’s boys were born on the same day but on different continents,” she smiled.
Quite a career
Minkler remembered the days when she officed out of a small building on Ashland, across from the Department of Motor Vehicles, in downtown Cambridge. Another move had her set up shop in Cottage 5 of the former State Hospital grounds.
In 1995, the Isanti County Government Center opened, and that meant a third move. Her fourth and last move was somewhat recent, as the Public Health department relocated to the lower level of the government center.
“The one-year job I took in 1987 to see if I would like Public Health turned into a fulfilling career…,” Minkler wrote in her letter of retirement. “It has been an honor to work with the citizens of Isanti County to address health issues. We have accomplished much over my tenure, but with Public Health there is always more to do.
“I feel I leave the agency in good hands with current staff that is well trained and committed to Public Health. I thank the board for this opportunity to make a difference in my community,” she added.
So what did she enjoy the most about her career?
“The difference we can make,” she said. “I think there is some assumptions of poverty with people not working hard. If I can make their life a little easier, it’s what kept me coming back; for 27 years it kept me coming back. I can see people’s barriers through home visits with Public Health. I got to see what makes people tick and make a difference. It’s been rewarding.”