University vacation donation program helps co-workers lend a hand

Michelle Wiley has worked just shy of two years at Penn State but already has earned a reputation with her co-workers. The Wonder Woman figurine, mouse pad and drawings decorating her desk are proof.

Wiley, the director for academic support resources at Penn State World Campus, was diagnosed with breast cancer three months after beginning her job in 2012. Although she was going through a difficult time, she immediately felt the support of her new co-workers through the University’s vacation donation program.

Penn State’s vacation donation program allows employees to donate one vacation day at a time to a co-worker within their work unit who has experienced a personal catastrophic event that results in prolonged absence from work, and who has already used his or her accumulated vacation time.

When an employee qualifies to benefit from the vacation donation program, the unit’s human resources representative will communicate the need to other employees. They can choose to give a day of their accumulated vacation time anonymously to the co-worker.

Because Wiley was a new employee, she quickly used what little vacation time she had earned. Then “a request for vacation donation was sent out in the morning, and by noon, there was enough donated time for my entire treatment,” she explained. “It was incredible; I was very overwhelmed by that.”

“There’s a lot of requests that come out for whatever it could be, just a surgery where someone needs to be out for two or three weeks or for something longer. Even if you can only give a half of a day, you at least can give something.”

— Michelle Wiley, director for academic support resources at Penn State World Campus

For the early part of her treatment, Wiley was out for a week or two at a time. Later on, she received treatment during her lunch breaks and was able to work more consistently. “Penn State’s huge, and I don’t have any idea who donated all this time,” Wiley said. “Tons of people I didn’t even know donated, so that’s pretty cool.”

In addition to the financial support from colleagues’ donated time, Wiley received a lot of emotional support. Often, she would return from a treatment to find a note or a small gift, such as a hat or pair of earrings, on her desk — sometimes from someone she hadn’t met. That emotional support is an unintended but great consequence of the program, said Susan Basso, vice president for Human Resources.

“The program is designed to be a significant benefit for staff,” Basso said. “It’s great to see employees really wanting to take care of each other. It’s a big university but a small community, and I think we can really relate to each other.”

In the past three years, vacation donation has helped about 200 employees across the University, and Basso is working with the University Staff Advisory Council to explore the possibility of enhancing the scope of the program. The council first approached Basso with the idea earlier this year, said Jeremy Warner, University Staff Advisory Council chair.

First, Basso and the council are working to benchmark against other university programs to make Penn State’s program more formal and apply it universally. “The council is strictly advisory, so we do our homework,” Warner said. “We get all the facts and present them to the appropriate members of administration to decide if indeed changes do need to be made and, if so, what those are.”

The council began working on researching other sick leave donation policies in the spring 2014 semester and will continue in the fall. “We want to make sure that we have policies and procedures in place that benefit staff in the best way possible,” he said.

While donating across different University units is a more complicated issue because of budgetary reasons, Basso said it might be possible to increase the amount of days donated at once.

“When you’ve been at an institution a really long time, you accumulate significant leave balances,” Basso said, adding that even a small unit like the Office of Human Resources recently was able to come together to help one of its own — multimedia specialist Mike Keller. “I couldn’t believe just within my 100-person organization how many people came together to give a day,” she said.

“I don’t know what I’d do if my employer didn’t have this program. I look forward to the time that I can pay it back if somebody else is ever in a similar situation.”

— Mike Keller, multimedia specialist in the Office of Human Resources

The program twice helped Keller, who was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at a young age. “The first time I needed the vacation donation program, I was just brought on full time at Penn State, so the timing of it was remarkable,” Keller said. In October 2011, anesthesia complications from a hernia surgery left him hospitalized for more than a month. “Things just spiraled out of control,” he said.

The bills back home weighed on the minds of Keller until he received a phone call from work telling him about the program. “It was a huge burden lifted,” Keller said. “I just started to break down crying. It meant so much to me that my co-workers would do that for me.”

Last year, a second bout of pneumonia kept Keller from work for a period of time, and his co-workers volunteered their time again. “I don’t know what I’d do if my employer didn’t have this program,” he said. “I look forward to the time that I can pay it back if somebody else is ever in a similar situation.”

Help for Penn State families

While many employees benefit from the program when they experience a personal issue, employees also can benefit if a family member is going through a catastrophic event and is in need of the employee’s assistance.

Renee Messina, who worked at the time as an assistant athletic trainer in Intercollegiate Athletics, and Kari Whitehead, a project manager in the Survey Research Center, both found financial assistance and emotional support from their co-workers when their daughters were diagnosed with leukemia.

The Messina family crosses the stage during Family Hour at THON 2014

Isabella, Pat, Jack and Renee Messina cross the stage during Family Hour at THON 2014, held at the Bryce Jordan Center on Penn State's University Park campus. Renee Messina was working as an assistant athletic trainer in Intercollegiate Athletics in 2003 when her then 2-year-old daughter, Isabella, was diagnosed with leukemia. Messina said she felt fortunate to get assistance from her colleagues through Penn State's employee vacation donation program so she could focus her efforts on Isabella's treatments.

Image: Annemarie Mountz

A colleague reached out to Messina about the program after hearing her daughter, Isabella Messina, was hospitalized at Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital in spring 2003.

“Our situation was one where we were helped by The Four Diamonds with medical bills, but I remember a social worker repeatedly asking if I was having any issues with work,” Messina said. Vacation donation was a rare program for hospital staff to encounter, she added, because many families she had met in the process of Isabella’s treatment had to quit or lost their jobs.

Messina estimates that she missed about six months of work while her then 2-year-old daughter was being treated.

“I was extremely fortunate to know that, at any point, when she was in the hospital or needing special care at home because of how sick she was, I could be home with her and not have to worry about needing to go to work.”

— Renee Messina, associate director of athletic training services

“My husband worked for UPS at the time. He was able to use his FMLA (Family and Medical Leave Act benefits). Beyond that, any time he took was unpaid because they didn’t have a comparable program,” said Messina, now the associate director of athletic training services. “I was extremely fortunate to know that, at any point, when she was in the hospital or needing special care at home because of how sick she was, I could be home with her and not have to worry about needing to go to work.”

Whitehead and her family received support from the vacation donation program twice when her daughter, Emily Whitehead, was diagnosed with cancer in 2010 and relapsed in 2011.

“At first I was a little bit hesitant because I didn’t want to take vacation days away from anybody else, but I was told that there are always people willing to donate,” Whitehead said about being approached with the idea. The help from her co-workers was a huge relief. “It just was something else that I didn’t have to worry about, so it allowed me to focus even more of my energy on Emily,” she said.

Today, the girls are in remission. Both mothers said the level of support shown by their colleagues was immeasurable.

THON 2014

Four Diamonds family members Emily Whitehead, left, and Manna Potter had fun climbing on Krista Petrulsky, who is a Four Diamonds child and cancer survivor at THON.

Image: Annemarie Mountz

“It just made dealing with Emily’s situation a little bit easier because work was something that I didn’t have to worry about,” Whitehead said. “My boss and my colleagues were just incredibly supportive. And then we had THON, which was a whole other support system, so it was really great to have the Penn State community following us and supporting us through that.”

Wiley echoed the sentiment and said she does what she can to pay it forward now that she’s back to work full-time. “I try to give back if I can give to somebody,” she said. “There’s a lot of requests that come out for whatever it could be, just a surgery where someone needs to be out for two or three weeks or for something longer. Even if you can only give a half of a day, you at least can give something.”

Last Updated June 05, 2014