Everyday Heroes: AFT PSRP finalist
Morton College, Cicero, Ill.
Cook County College Teachers Union, Local 1600
When it comes to playing for a good cause, Richie Pawlak will never say no.
Pawlak is a computer programmer for Morton College in Cicero, Ill., and a member of the Cook County College Teachers Union, but outside work he's a bit of a rock star. He plays in three bands, and every October one of them—the Mud Pie Band—is asked to participate in a Breast Cancer Awareness Day in his suburban Chicago neighborhood of Berwyn. So Pawlak grabs his bass guitar and joins his bandmates to play music from the 1990s to raise money for breast cancer awareness.
Pawlak also goes door to door asking businesses to donate baskets for a fundraising raffle associated with the event. And between sets, he's helping the firefighters union (which he recruited to get involved) sell chocolate bars for the cause. Pawlak has lived in Berwyn for 50 years; since he is 52 years old, that's nearly all his life. To say he's deeply committed is an understatement: In the days preceding the event, he wears pink extensions in his long hair—pink for breast cancer awareness—to be sure everyone remembers to attend.
Last year, the event raised more than $10,000 to promote breast cancer awareness.
Between band practices (his other bands play country and classic rock), Pawlak also organizes coat drives and food drives at the college, where he has worked for 30 years. He sets out boxes in the lobbies and delivers the clothing and canned food they collect to distribution centers. And he helps run the union's Toys for Tots program around the holidays, ensuring that low-income families have enough to create a happy Christmas for their kids.
"He's always the No. 1 guy; whatever is needed, he helps out," says Tim Visk, the union's classified employees chapter chair for Morton College, and Pawlak's supervisor in the Management Information Services department. "People just love him."
"It's a rough time for some people," explains Pawlak. "I'm trying to make it a little easier for them."
To raise money for Alzheimer's research, Pawlak participates in a walkathon along the Chicago lakefront. Before his knees gave out, he did stair climbs to raise money for lung cancer research. And every year he donates to the University of South Dakota-affiliated Indian University of North America at Crazy Horse Memorial. His contribution pays for scholarships so Native American high school students can attend a summer university program designed to prepare them for college.
"If a kid, no matter what background or upbringing, is willing to learn, there should be support for him or her," says Pawlak.
At his own college, Pawlak handles correspondence for the union, and keeps members informed of state and national union business as well as local events.
How does he find time for it all? "I don't sleep very much," he explains. "I figure when I retire, I can sleep then."