This article was originally published on May 13, 2021 by MontcoToday.
By Ken Knickerbocker
Paula F. McCauley, Board Chairperson of The Lincoln Center for Family and Youth (TLC), an Audubon-based nonprofit, human services, community-based organization that provides alternative education, coaching, and counseling services to individuals and families in the Greater Philadelphia Area, spoke with MONTCO.Today about growing up in West Philadelphia when black-owned businesses were the hub of a close-knit community, how her mother’s determination encouraged and motivated her to make sacrifices and reach her goals, attending St. Joe’s, Temple, Pierce before finally graduating from Drexel University before rising through the ranks to an executive position at Verizon.
Paula goes on to share how she became involved with and her vision for The Lincoln Center, an organization whose board she has chaired since 1991, what she does in her free time and how her mother’s insistence she always dream big but remember her humble roots influences every aspect of her professional and private life.
Where were you born, and where did you grow up, Paula?
I was born the oldest of two girls in West Philadelphia and grew up near 54th and Girard Avenue in West Philly. My sister Michelle, who is ten years younger than me, is an attorney for the City of Philadelphia.
What did your parents do for a living?
My father worked as a carpenter at DuPont in Southwest Philadelphia. My mother worked at Merck Sharp & Dohme, and then she worked at Lankenau Hospital as a Director of Central Supply.
What memories do you have of growing up in West Philly in the Sixties?
I lived in a neighborhood that looked out for one another. I remember sitting on the porch until the streetlights came on, and if you did something wrong, your parents found out immediately! I also remember a lot of black-owned businesses – the corner store, the drug store, a shoe repair shop, etc. – businesses we don’t have much of today. My family supported those businesses!
Both you and your sister are very successful. What did your parents instill in you that inspired you both to excel?
My mother always pushed Shelley and me. My street was the cutoff point for going to Heston Elementary School, one of the better schools in the neighborhood at the time. School officials told my mother that I couldn’t attend that school because we were outside that school’s boundary. My mother insisted I be allowed to attend Heston. She kept me out of school for several weeks until district officials relented and let me attend.
That’s just one example of my mother’s determination. She showed us that we had to push for it and never give up if we wanted something. She always encouraged us to reach for our goals, no matter what obstacles we faced. My Dad was such a supporter of whatever we wanted to do. If it were not for his sacrifices, Mom would not have been able to do as much for us.
Did you play any sports when you were growing up?
I was a cheerleader and rose to captain of the cheerleading squad at Overbrook High School.
Was that the first time you ever took on a leadership position?
Yes, the role as cheer team captain was the first leadership position that I had that I took seriously. I worked very hard in high school to attain that position. I have always strived for the next step.
What do you think the coach saw in you to become the captain?
I think they saw my determination and drive. I have always been a results-oriented person, and I was always working with the team to help create a comfortable and accepting environment.
At church, we always ask, “what is your gift?” I think my gift has always been leading and working with people. I always try to help others reach their potential.
What kind of music were you listening to back then?
I love music, especially upbeat music. I always liked The Temptations, Smokey Robinson. Later, I absolutely loved Michael Jackson and Prince. My husband and I were just talking with friends about going on a Jazz Cruise when the pandemic passes.
What was your first job, Paula?
My first job was working at the ice cream counter at the Dungee Pharmacy, a Black-owned corner drug store owned by the neighborhood Pharmacist.
What lessons did you take from that job that you still use today?
Besides the fact I learned how to make a great chocolate milkshake, I learned how to take care of people. Customer service is the aspect of that job that stays with me.
Where did you go to college?
I graduated from Drexel University, but it took me a while to get there. I started at St. Joseph’s at night. From there, I went to Temple, did a little work at Pierce and then graduated from Drexel.
What was it about St. Joe’s that drew you in?
St Joseph’s University was close to where we lived. When I got married, our second apartment was in Wynnfield. I was determined to get my degree, but it was very hard to raise two sons, work full time, and travel for my job.
Why was it so important to you to graduate?
At the time, I worked for Bell Telephone (Bell PA, Bell Atlantic, Verizon), and in order for me to get to an executive position, I needed a college degree. As soon as I had a degree, I was promoted to the executive position. I was always working towards that goal to get my degree.
When you look back on your education journey, what would you have done differently?
Perhaps I wouldn’t have skipped around to the different colleges. I had the opportunity to go to Cheyney University directly out of high school but I chose not to go since I wasn’t quite ready to be away from my parents and living on campus. Instead, I chose to go right to work after graduating high school. It turned out to be the best choice for my career.
Going back to the beginning of your career, who saw promise in you and took a chance?
Two people mentored me all the way through my career at Verizon. The first one, Bruce Gordon, took me under his wing. He was on the fast track in the company, and on his first day, I was his tour guide. We became good friends. He saw something in me that made him remember me and reach back out when he saw opportunities for growth within the company.
What did he see in you?
He always said I was a person that was determined and was able to see the positive side of things in life. I’ll never forget the time when my first husband died unexpectedly, and I came back to work. It was challenging, but he saw that I was very determined to continue on. He recognized me at a Senior Staff meeting, which was pretty special.
Where does your determination and strength come from, Paula?
From my faith. I’ve been through a lot. My first husband died suddenly. I’m currently going through cancer, my second bout. My faith and my hope are what keep me going.
Who was the other person you mentioned?
My other mentor is Bob Curry. In my second management job, I asked him if he would mentor me. He chuckled and said, “Paula, you don’t ask someone to mentor you. They find and mentor you!” To this day, Bob and I are close friends. He always reached out and presented opportunities for me to move upward. When I retired, he called me with a consulting opportunity.
Tell me more about your consulting gig.
I had just retired, and he said there was an opportunity in Indiana coaching engineers. Engineers tend to have a different personality. I worked with them to develop goals and strategies with the people who report to them.
At first, I thought Indiana; there’s no way I’m going there. I ended up going out there and loving the position, people and the opportunity. I worked with them for almost twelve years, which led to consulting work in other areas. That was not in my wildest dreams.
Did it surprise you that people wanted to hire you as a consultant?
Yes! I think about some of the jobs I’ve done as a volunteer, and I always find myself thinking about how my work experience has lead me to many opportunities that I never dreamt would happen.
Tell me about the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Training you do.
I used to do training in Chestnut Hill called “Breaking Bread,” where I worked with business owners to talk about diversity as the area was becoming more diverse. The merchants needed help with their new customers. We’d sit down, eat together, and talk about some of the things they were concerned about. I did that for several years. It was a successful project.
How did you get involved in The Lincoln Center?
Once I became an executive at Verizon, the company asked me to give back to my community. I interviewed for several positions. I was interviewed by a woman named Doris Leigh, and we just clicked. I always loved helping people move up or achieve their dreams, and this seemed like a right fit for me because it was children who needed help. At that time, The Lincoln Center was a just small organization. But I just felt comfortable there.
It’s been twenty-seven years on the Board now! I’ve been Board President for twenty years. Our Board is small, which I like. It’s a good fit for me. We’ve grown in so many ways since I became involved.
What is it that The Lincoln Center is doing now that excites you?
I think it’s basically the growth that has been most exciting. We are more far reaching than ever and have a larger community service scope. Our territory has grown to include clients from all around. Using social media and putting on events for students and families has allowed us to be engaged in the community more than ever before.
Where do you see the organization in 5 or 10 years?
I would like TLC’s services to reach beyond the Greater Philadelphia Area. I want to see us go to New Jersey, Ohio, the Carolinas, and other places across the country. I would also like to see TLC become a thought leader in education and counseling, attracting other organizations to come to us for training and development. That’s where I see us being far-reaching and helpful.
Since our new President and CEO, GT, joined us four years ago, he has helped us grow and has pushed the organization to be more diverse and reflective of the communities that we serve.
What do you do in your free time?
I’m still a trustee with Bethlehem Baptist Church in Spring House. I’ve been a member there for thirty-four years. I also love being out in my yard, planting flowers and such. I also love to read.
What are you reading now?
I’m currently reading Obama’s A Promise Land. All 700 pages of it! I’m about halfway through, and I have learned so much.
Finally, Paula, what’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
My mother always used to tell us to dream big to go after whatever it was in life that we wanted. She always taught me to remember where I came from as well. She reminded me to reflect on what got me to where I am today, what helped me get there, and always help others pull them to where you are. I want to do for someone else what my mother and mentors did for me.
Publisher’s Note: Laura Manion contributed to this profile.