Inside Out

Community Connections aims to enrich the work lives of Vanderbilt staff

Janiece Vincz (left) and Lara Beth Lehman (John Russell/Vanderbilt)

As one of Tennessee’s largest employers, Vanderbilt is, in essence, a small city. More than 22,000 workers comprise this bustling community, which is service-minded, rich in creativity and culturally diverse. What better place to find kindred spirits, like-minded hobbyists, caring companions and potential mentors? But – you might ask – how do you do it?

Community Connections, a new committee created by and for staff members, is creating ways for Vanderbilt’s most valuable resource – the people who work here each day – to take time to connect with one another through mutual interests, and in doing so, enriching the community as a whole.

“Times are tough, and we are all working hard,” said Janiece Vincz, creator of Community Connections. “When you take a few minutes away from the stress and deadlines to commune with others, it refreshes the soul.

“We go back and forth, to and from work, but we forget that the people here at Vanderbilt are creative, challenging and amazing. When we spend time with each other we are uplifted and recharged, and that’s good for Vanderbilt.”

Vincz, a senior human resource specialist in the payroll department, said she considered herself “just a worker drone” until a few years ago, when she read Julia Cameron’s book on creativity, The Artist’s Way. That led her to get involved with the University Staff Advisory Council, and the idea for Community Connections was born.

“Through USAC, I met these fascinating people from all over campus and began to see what a rich resource Vanderbilt really is,” Vincz said. “[rquote]Part of working in an intellectual environment is that it draws a lot of creative people who are driven to be more and do more. So if we don’t connect with each other, we’re really missing out on the greatest benefit Vanderbilt has to offer.”[/rquote]

Community Connections, an ad hoc subcommittee of the University Staff Advisory Council, works in cooperation with the Medical Center Staff Advisory Council and Employee Celebration. The group launched officially with lunchtime programming in June 2011.

Community Connections holds its monthly gatherings at various locations across campus (“Wherever we can find space at no charge,” Vincz said). One of the more popular gatherings to date was a hands-on car care tutorial designed for the “automotively challenged” and led by Plant Operations’ Robert West.

Jenny Elrod, a speech-language pathologist at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, took part in the event.

“They put two cars on a lift to point out the different parts of a car,” she said. “Through this workshop I learned about basic maintenance, the components under a car’s hood and where everything was located on the underside of the car. I also learned how to check my brake pads for wear and how to check my tire tread. I enjoyed it and learned a lot.”

Lara Beth Lehman, an assistant at Peabody Library and USAC member, hosted a Community Connections “make your own holiday card” party.

“Within an hour of announcing it, the event was full and we quickly added another session,” Lehman, an avid crafter, said. “We put on some holiday music and spent an hour being creative and laughing. But our focus goes beyond just having fun – you never know when you might make a new friend or end up networking with a colleague you want to collaborate with.”

Other events have included a healthy food cooking demonstration by Health Plus nutrition educator Stacey Kendrick and an informative talk on managing holiday stress with Work/Life Connections-EAP Manager Jim Kendall. Several of the Community Connections gatherings have been recorded and can be viewed in their entirety at the group’s website.

Community Connections has been highly successful thanks to its founders, said Kenny Moore, current USAC president and assistant director of The Commons Center. “I hope that this effort continues to promote staff excellence and the creation of  ‘One Vanderbilt,’” he said.

The 2012 schedule is still being formulated, but the first event is on the books. On Jan. 27 in the Fireside Room at Peabody Library, Community Connections will host a life coaching session with Work/Life Connections-EAP clinical counselor Janet McCutchen.

“Everybody thinks about dieting and exercise in the new year, so we wanted to do something a little bit different,” Vincz said. “Janet is going to talk to us about how to set goals for your life, how to get your joy back and how to recapture yourself as a person.”

As participation grows, the committee hopes to connect staff members with similar hobbies who can develop social groups of their own.

“Whether people love books, cars, photography or fly fishing, we want to orchestrate getting these people together,” Lehman said. “We want to plant the seeds of community and then let people take it even further. Juggling, novel writing, wine tasting – it’s endless. We would love to be a matchmaker for folks in that respect.”

There are 14 members serving on the Community Connections committee, representing departments across campus, from Athletics to Information Technology Services to the Institute for Medicine and Public Health. Participation in the University Staff Advisory Council is voluntary, and members are elected by their peers for two-year terms.

So far, employees have been very enthusiastic about the mission of Community Connections, Vincz said. “We have gotten a great response, and now we are asking people to get in touch with us and tell us what type of programming they’d like to see. Maybe they want to learn to knit or go skydiving. Whatever it is, there’s somebody at Vanderbilt who’s an expert and willing to share their knowledge with the rest of us. We just need to make those connections.”