Valerie Kokor: A Remarkable Journey to a Public Health Calling

“It’s a calling,” says Valerie Kokor about her long career in public health, “but you don’t always know your calling right away.” Valerie’s story is one of twists and turns, successes and failures, and an ongoing commitment to the field of public health—even in retirement today.

Valerie’s path to working for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was not the most traditional. She initially got her bachelor’s degree in Spanish (with a minor in German), and went on to get an MBA in marketing. Her first jobs during college were in a steel mill and in various restaurant positions. She came across a job ad in her local Cleveland newspaper for something called “VD investigators,” and her interest was piqued. She applied with a general hope of doing something interesting, and before she knew it she had accepted a position as a CDC Public Health Advisor. Valerie packed her 1979 Chevy with her TV and clothes and headed for Houston…with no idea what to expect.

This inspired jump into something new ultimately led to over 35 years of working at CDC in various Public Health Advisor roles. These positions required Valerie to work as a generalist, communicating complex scientific information to the general public. Though she had never dreamed of working in public health as a child, and had started in a very different direction, she noted how few career opportunities and paths most 18-year-olds are even aware of, and how the field kept her engaged. “Everything was interesting to me because I didn’t initially have a background in public health,” she said.

It truly did seem like her career touched on everything: Valerie worked in areas from outbreak control, to Hurricane Katrina deployments, to polio eradication, domestically and globally. And all the while, she kept thinking two things: “I am so lucky to be able to do this,” and “I hope I am able to make a difference in public health.”

This drive to make a difference would guide her through her entire career…and beyond.

A polio vaccinaion poster at the Manjo District Health Center in Cameroon's Littoral Region.

Flooded street in downtown New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Though retired, Valerie hasn’t slowed down in her commitments. Whether she’s volunteering at her health department’s drive-through vaccination events in freezing temperatures, working with local non-profit organizations to apply for grants, speaking to community groups about the importance of public health and the role of the CDC, or choosing to become a member of the Healthy Futures Society by leaving a legacy to the CDC Foundation, Valerie continually reinvents her interests and finds ways to help however she can.

Her motto is: “Don’t stay still for very long; that’s how you get old.” Along with her volunteer work and philanthropic efforts, she’s an avid adventurer and traveler, having recently returned from Antarctica. And even there, at the far reaches of the Earth, her public health lens stayed on: she made note of the required heavy precautions needed to avoid transmitting bird flu to the penguins and other birds, and introducing invasive species to Antarctica.

Valerie Kokor spent 35 years working at CDC in various Public Health Advisor roles.

Gentoo Penguins on Petermann Island on the Antarctic Peninsula

By continually looking at the world through this lens, Valerie has remained dedicated to supporting public health however she can, believing that every individual has an essential role to play in ensuring that the public health system remains strong and effective. And as a donor to the CDC Foundation herself, she believes that prospective donors should know that every donation (no matter how small) can make a difference in creating a healthier future for all of us.

Valerie’s long CDC career helped inform this decision to support the CDC Foundation, having witnessed the impact of government funding limitations firsthand. She believes strongly in the Foundation’s work to advance public health initiatives, amplify CDC’s work and make a meaningful impact in communities across the country and globally. Overall, she says, the CDC Foundation is a valuable and important partner to CDC’s work in the United States and across the world.

The legacy gift she has chosen to leave to the CDC Foundation is a reflection of both her life’s work and her driving principles: she sees it as a way of ensuring that her contributions to public health will continue. It is a lasting mark of the grounded and deeply committed life she has led. And ultimately, though in the past she could never have anticipated the impact she would make in her career and beyond, she now knows it is an impact that will go on far into the future.


For more information about leaving your legacy gift to the CDC Foundation, please contact Helene Erenberg at, or by phone at 404.443.1139.

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