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March 17, 2005

Making Pitt work: Gwen Watkins’s passion for the community

Pitt’s senior administration grabs most of the headlines. The faculty here get noticed when they bring in research dollars, win teaching awards or publish in their fields.

But behind the scenes, University staff, some 6,500 strong across five campuses, often toil in jobs ranging from the mundane to the esoteric.

From mailroom workers to data entry specialists, from greenhouse managers to nutritionists, from costume designers to biosafety officers, from photographers to accountants, staff at Pitt perform tasks great and small, year-in and year-out, for the greater good of the University.

Like the proverbial purloined letter, some staff, such as secretaries, receptionists and maintenance workers, go unnoticed even though daily they plug away at their jobs in plain view.

“I often have referred to the dedicated members of the University’s staff as the ‘unsung heroes’ of the institution,” said Chancellor Mark Nordenberg. “Most often, they tackle their responsibilities with a sense of pride and with real loyalty to Pitt. Those qualities add richness and strength to the social fabric of our own community and also have an impact beyond our campus borders.”

This is the first in an occasional series profiling University staff, providing a glimpse of some of the less recognized employees whose primary business is making Pitt work.

A passion for the community is what drives long-time Pitt staffer Gwen Watkins.

When Watkins applied to Pitt 35 years ago, her flawless typing and shorthand skills left her in the enviable position of being able to pick a job from among three University departments. She chose the former Office of Urban and Community Service because “I wanted to be involved with the community.”

Watkins got her wish, and then some. Now a special events coordinator in the Office of Community and Governmental Relations, Watkins helps to match volunteer services and donated goods from the University with community needs.

Her duties range from ordering coffee to organizing blood drives for the Central Blood Bank of Pittsburgh.

Watkins is among the thousands of support staff members at Pitt who patch through countless phone calls, deal with dwindling levels of toner in laser printers and help prepare for projects that can impact a student’s education, an instructional innovation or a research breakthrough.

In Watkins’s case, much of her daily duties focus on helping the greater Pittsburgh community in some way.

For example, a Pitt staffer drops off a package of miniature toiletries from a hotel stay to Watkins. She deposits the package in a box with similar grooming products slated for Family House, a haven for people from outside Pittsburgh who are here, often with family members, for treatment of an acute or life-threatening illness.

This is just one of more than a dozen community causes that Watkins’s department coordinates at Pitt. And, while most people know that ill patients need a place to stay, it’s the details of bringing comfort to those patients that Watkins specializes in. She calls contacts at various non-profit and community organizations and simply asks what is needed. She then solicits the University community.

Last year, one of her contacts at Family House told her that they needed grooming products and other items. “A lot of those people walk into Family House with what they’re wearing on their backs,” Watkins explained. “They don’t have time to think about shampoo.” Now many Pitt staffers “know the drill,” she said, dropping off grooming supplies after a hotel stay.

She also coordinates Pitt’s blood drives. Watkins schedules each drive, advertises it and sends out letters seeking donors. The next blood drive is set for April 5 in the Kurtzman Room of the William Pitt Union and the first floor lounge in Victoria hall.

Watkins’s work on a community project also might begin with a Pitt official such as John Wilds, assistant vice chancellor for Community and Governmental Relations, identifying urgent needs within the greater Pittsburgh area. Such projects are sometimes undertaken by Pitt’s Volunteer Pool of more than 2,200 staffers who donate time and items for those in need.

For example, earlier this year, Wilds discovered a project that collected socks for the homeless. He brought the idea to Watkins, who launched a sock-a-thon campaign targeting employees who have donated blood or participated in Volunteer Pool projects.

She got more than she asked for: “People were bringing in three, six, 30 pairs of socks,” she said. “I had boxes stacked, filled with about 1,000 pairs of socks.”

In addition to her regular job, Watkins is the Staff Association Council (SAC) vice president for steering and chair of programming and planning. Among other duties, she does fundraising and coordinates events for a $10,000 endowment for the children of staff book scholarship fund.

Watkins also is the long-time coordinator of the University’s picnic at Kennywood Park, scheduled this year for June 11. “The picnic — that’s my baby,” she said. She coordinates games and the raffling of prizes for the more than 1,000 Pitt employees who attend. “It’s great to have something nice for the staff and their families where they are appreciated. I’m family oriented and it’s nice to see staff get prizes and play the games.”

Watkins says she’ll soon be begging local businesses for prizes to award at the picnic.

Out of the office but still on campus, she has helped encourage young women to excel in the University environment. Watkins has been a mentor for low-income women in the University Community Career Development Partnership and has been an adviser for a Christian sorority.

“If you can encourage somebody else to advance, it’s a great feeling,” she said.

Watkins is going back to school herself. She is starting her third year as an undergraduate focusing on business administration and social work. She’s personally interested in urban ministries and might enroll in some theology courses, she said.

Watkins said she doesn’t plan to slow down, especially when it comes to pursuing her interests. A recent bout with cancer reaffirmed the importance of her goals and helping others. Watkins was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2003. With surgery and radiation treatments, she has beaten it.

“You know, you can sit there and wallow in self pity, but you’ve got to move on,” she said. “I look at this as an opportunity to tell women: ‘Please get your breast exams, be pro-active. Take care of your body.’”

Her experience has further cemented her commitment to help others, she says: “Do something for someone else because somebody has it worse than you.”

—Mary Ann Thomas

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