Terra Parris grew up in a family that placed a high value on helping others, so it comes as no surprise she was honored with the United Way's Outstanding Campaign Coordinator Award for 2012.
Parris has worked for the Jefferson City School District for 23 years, and for the past 13 years, she's been in charge of coordinating the district's United Way campaign. This year, faculty and staff donated about $50,000 to support the United Way's 24 agency partners. About a third of the district's staff participate in the fundraiser.
Parris, who works in the district's community relations department, has an amusing title. "I'm the executive assistant to the assistant to the superintendent," she said. "But I see myself as goodwill ambassador for the district."
She is frequently the first person a parent with a question talks to, and she prides herself on making a positive and polite first impression.
Her boss, David Luther, said Parris does a great job of handling callers, who occasionally call with safety concerns. "She does a terrific job of putting herself in the shoes of the parents," he said. "She just has the ability to be a good listener. When people talk to her, they know she is truly interested and concerned with helping them."
As the United Way's campaign coordinator for the school district, Parris reaches out to 19 buildings - approximately 1,200 employees - with a short presentation. For years, the district has been one of the campaign's top five contributors. That changed a few years ago when the district ranked seventh.
That downward shift didn't sit well with Parris.
"I take it kind of personally," she said. "I said: "We've got to do something. We've got to get back into the Top 5.'"
She thought part of the problem was that older faculty members - who were committed to giving - were retiring, but younger faculty members hadn't yet built the habit.
"I knew we had to appeal to the younger set. So I came up with some incentives to intrigue them," she said.
One of those incentives was a plan to allow employees to wear blue jeans on weekdays, in exchange for contributing and wearing a sticker. Contributions clearly ticked upward, she said.
She said the move was also a good opportunity for teachers to lead by example. "I think that's such a good lesson for our students," she said.
For teachers, contributing to the United Way is a natural fit. "We see the need," Parris explained, noting several of the United Way's partner agencies - the Boys & Girls Club and the Food Bank's Buddy Pack program, for example - directly help needy students in the district.
Parris - who was raised by a single mom who worked as the minister for an impoverished church congregation in Wichita, Kan., - said her mother was always working to provide for the needs of her flock, even as times were tough for her own family. "She was a huge influence in my life," said Parris.
During her tenure with the district, Parris has worked for three superintendents and two directors of the district's community relations department. Throughout her years, she's always served in the same capacity. Some of her other duties include organizing the district's special events, working on the district's master calendar and overseeing the office staff.
"I even had the same desk and chair until two year ago," she said.
Accompanying photo: Terra Parris