United Front

When Paula Williams moved to State College in 2023 to become executive director of Centre County United Way, she was struck by the county’s economic realities: 15% of the population lives in poverty, and 31% meets the United Way’s ALICE criteria—Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. “ALICE is one unplanned event, like car trouble or a medical bill, away from facing life-changing hardships. These are the people we help,” says Williams ’87 Edu, who grew up in Levittown, Pa. “Joining CCUW is a great way to make a difference.”

For the 2023-24 fiscal year, CCUW distributed $1 million to 25 partner agencies in Centre County that carry out programs in the areas of health, education, and financial stability. CCUW is Penn State’s charity of choice, Williams says, and about 40% of its funding comes from events held by Penn State and from donations by university employees. Last May, Penn State kicked off a new fundraising event, Over the Edge, in which Williams, the Nittany Lion mascot, and 45 participants rappelled 110 feet off the top of Beaver Stadium. “It was amazing and something that every Penn Stater should experience,” says Williams.

Williams took a nontraditional path to nonprofits. She started her career as an elementary school teacher, working first in Bristol Township, Pa., then in Montgomery County, Md. When she and her husband, David Williams ’87 Lib, moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1994 for his work, she stayed at home with their son for two years before joining Greater Albuquerque Habitat for Humanity as a volunteer. “My first job was literally handing out water on the site, and five years later I became board president because I like to help organize things,” she says.

When a Habitat staff member was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001 and died before realizing her wish to walk in the Race for the Cure wearing a pink survivor T-shirt, Williams raised funds in her memory, and that year she became the leading fundraiser for Central New Mexico Komen. She then went on to serve as its executive director. —Lisa Reyes