Prescott celebrates 25 years at WCHD

-Submitted photo
Webster County Health Department Director Kari Prescott is celebrating 25 years at the WCHD this month. She started in January 1997.

When Kari Prescott applied for a job at the Webster County Health Department, it wasn’t the result of a lifelong passion for public health. It was 1997 and she was a single mother of three young girls, looking for a job with benefits to take care of her family.

Now, 25 years later, Prescott has held a wide array of roles within the Health Department, working her way up to her current role as the department’s director.

“I never dreamt on that day in 1997 that I would be sitting here today with all these experiences,” she said.

When Prescott started at the Health Department on Jan. 27, 1997, the department had just acquired the WIC grant, and her role was to learn the ins and outs of the grant, which provides assistance to new mothers and children at risk of poor nutrition. A year later, her role transitioned into coordinating the maternal and child health grant.

Later, Prescott moved into an office manager position and helped grow additional programs. At the time, the WIC and maternal and child health grant programs through the WCHD only covered four counties, but now it’s up to 15, Prescott said.

-Submitted photo
When Kari Prescott started at the Webster County Health Department in January 1997, she never envisioned herself still with the department 25 years later. Today, she is the department’s director.

“And then a few years later, I implemented some other programs that had some grant opportunities,” she said.

These programs include an abstinence grant, HIV screening, teen pregnancy prevention, iSmile and iSmile Silver.

Prescott also served as an HIV coordinator, environmental health officer and chief financial officer.

“There’s just so many buckets that I’ve dipped my toes,” she said.

Finding a passion for public health, Prescott decided to further her education, receiving her associate degree in general studies from Iowa Central Community College and her bachelor’s degree in health and human services and sociology from Buena Vista University — Fort Dodge Campus.

-Submitted photo
Webster County Health Department Director Kari Prescott was a single mother in need of a job to support her family when she started at the WCHD in January 1997. In 2008, she became the department’s director and is now celebrating 25 years with the department.

“I was a non-traditional student, so a huge shout out to Iowa Central in their coordination for people like me at that time,” she said.

As a single mom working up the ranks in the department, Prescott enjoyed learning about all the different aspects of public health, from WIC to child and maternal health to immunizations and more.

“There’s just so many services that are provided that working in the field is just a feel-good job,” she said. “We can help people when they need it, in a non-threatening way.”

She said it was “eye-opening” seeing everything the department could do for the community.

On Sept. 1, 2008, Prescott assumed her current position as director of the WCHD.

“Becoming the director, I had goals and visions and wanted to take advantage of opportunities and have some strategic planning to really grow the agency to where it is right now,” she said.

One of the aspects of public health Prescott expanded as director was emergency preparedness for things like E. coli or salmonella outbreaks.

“We’re on the prevention side, but we’re also on response and recovery,” she said.

Emergency preparedness extends to more than just foodborne illness outbreaks and viral epidemics. In December, the WCHD, along with Webster County Emergency Management and other county agencies, set up an incident command center to prepare for the wind storm that hit the area on Dec. 15.

“We were prepared that if a tornado touched down, that we could help with emergency sheltering or food or whatever was needed,” Prescott said.

Part of growing emergency preparedness and other missions of the department has been growing and fostering relationships with other agencies in the county.

“That’s been kind of really exciting,” she said. “Now we’re in a regional component with coordinating ambulance services and hospital and public health and it’s more of a larger network.”

She said 10 or 15 years ago, WCHD was kind of an “island” working by itself.

“Now there’s more of a vision to coordination, connecting and collaborating not to duplicate but enhance services,” Prescott said. “So that’s been really fun to see that develop over the years.”

Building those relationships and collaboration helped Prescott and WCHD prepare for the COVID-19 pandemic when it hit Iowa in March 2020, she said, reflecting on March 17, 2020, when Gov. Kim Reynolds issued the first emergency orders due to the coronavirus.

“That particular day, I will always remember what it felt like to be a leader in public health in a community,” Prescott said. “And the challenge and responsibility that was going to be on us as a department.”

The moment she’s most proud of in her tenure as director is representing WCHD during a press conference held by the governor in March 2021, where she discussed the county’s efforts for mass COVID-19 vaccination clinics.

“That was an unexpected outcome of being director and a tremendous honor,” she said. “And a great opportunity to represent not just our department, but all the wonderful staff that work here and the work that they do every day.”

Prescott gives a lot of credit to her staff at WCHD.

“As an agency, I take great pride in the employees that work here, their mission, their empathy, their drive to do the best that they can every day that they come to work,” she said. “That’s probably one of the best feelings as a leader, to know that you’ve got a wonderful team of people working with me.”

Part of being the Health Department’s director is also working with the Webster County Board of Health and the Webster County Board of Supervisors.

“For us, it’s an honor to have somebody like Kari,” said Mark Campbell, Webster County Board of Supervisors chairman and member of the Board of Health. “Her leadership continues to put our Health Department as an example for others to follow and we’re incredibly honored to have her.”

With 25 years at the Webster County Health Department under her belt, Prescott isn’t sure if she’ll be there for another 25 years, but she’s certainly not done.

“I’ve got some goals,” she said. “When I went back to school to get my degrees, I did want to become director here and I did want to implement some changes within the department.”

Some goals she wants to accomplish before she retires are aligning with the Iowa Department of Human Services, taking a holistic approach to public health and reaching across county borders.

“I still would like us to figure out how we can better assist smaller health departments to offer more collaborative services,” Prescott said.


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