March 6, 2024

Former employee honored for supporting South LA families

Bill Coggins, who founded the Kaiser Permanente Watts Counseling and Learning Center in 1967, wins the 2024 George Halvorson Community Health Leadership Award.

Bill Coggins encouraged learning and exploration at the Watts Counseling and Learning Center.

Wilfred D. “Bill” Coggins’ interest in social work began when he was young.

His first mentor was his mother, who raised him on her own.

“I could describe her as she’s been described to me by my psychoanalyst: a one-woman social agency,” shared Coggins. “She was always helping and supporting someone.”

His budding interest in helping vulnerable people and communities eventually led to much more. In 1967, Coggins created an innovative counseling center in Watts, a neighborhood in southern Los Angeles, California.

It was called the Kaiser Foundation Parent-Child Center. And, it delivered on its motto: “Helping people grow.”

For Coggins' significant work helping the Watts community, Kaiser Permanente named him the winner of our 2024 George Halvorson Community Health Leadership Award.

The award is named for Kaiser Permanente’s chairman and CEO from 2002 to 2013. It honors exemplary leadership in improving the health of our communities.

A community with strengths

Kaiser Permanente hired Coggins in 1966 to learn about the needs of the people living in Watts.

At the time, Watts was reeling from a period of widespread civil unrest. A series of riots broke out in 1965 in the predominantly Black neighborhood. They lasted 6 days and resulted in 34 deaths. Many other people were injured and arrested.

These events uncovered longstanding community frustrations. Unemployment was high. Housing opportunities and education were inadequate. People faced systemic injustices and other social inequities.

Coggins acknowledged he did not know Watts. But, he could see it was a community full of strengths. He set out to learn from the people living there.

“I don’t care how much you’ve read, how much you’ve lived,” Coggins said. “You have to try and see life from their point of view and develop something that’s relevant and connects to them.”

A center to help Watts grow

Coggins’ work in the community resulted in the creation of the Kaiser Permanente Watts Parent-Child Center in 1967.

The center provided therapy and educational services for children and parents. It empowered families to lean on their strengths while coping with stressors and barriers.

The center is now called the Kaiser Permanente Watts Counseling and Learning Center. In February 2024, it moved to share a campus with the new Kaiser Permanente Watts Medical Offices.

Man speaking at lectum
Coggins received the award at the opening ceremony for the Kaiser Permanente Watts Medical Offices, which share a campus with the Watts Counseling and Learning Center.

The center continues to provide counseling and youth services. It also offers an accredited preschool. The center’s services are open to all Watts residents. They don’t have to be Kaiser Permanente members.

A lasting legacy

Coggins was a pioneer in understanding the connection between well-being and healthy communities.

His work made Watts a better place for people to live — a place that better supports good health.

“Coggins is a visionary leader. He confronted unfairness and injustices. He saw potential in children and families and took action,” said John Yamamoto , vice president of Community Health and Government Relations for Kaiser Permanente in Southern California. “I’m proud to celebrate him alongside the Kaiser Permanente community.”

As part of the annual award, Coggins received a $10,000 contribution to a charity of his choice.

He chose the Didi Hirsch Suicide Prevention Center. This center offers a multilingual 24-hour suicide prevention crisis line, therapy, and support groups.