Pamela Atkinson is used to stepping up. Stepping up to speak for communities in need, stepping up on behalf of the homeless, hurricane evacuees.
On Nov. 2, Atkinson will step forward to accept the 2005 Athena Award, given annually by the Salt Lake Chamber, to recognize her contributions to business and the community. Atkinson is the 20th recipient, joining the likes of June Morris of Morris Air, Deborah Bayle of the American Red Cross and former Utah Gov. Olene Walker.
"Pamela is such an icon in our city," said Nancy Mitchell, executive director of the Women's Business Center at the Salt Lake Chamber. "Recently, someone referred to her as the Mother Teresa of Salt Lake City, and I think it's a wonderful description of her."
Atkinson shies away from praise, expressing only "awe" at being this year's Athena winner.
"It was so totally unexpected," Atkinson said. "I believe I was speechless."
The Athena isn't the first honor given to Atkinson. In addition to receiving numerous community awards, the 2003 Utah Legislature established the Pamela Atkinson Homeless Trust Fund (formerly the Homeless Trust Fund), which is funded by the Legislature and charitable contributions to help people move from homelessness to self-sufficiency. In 2003, the Fourth Street Clinic was renamed the Pamela Atkinson Fourth Street Clinic.
Her work on behalf of the homeless and other vulnerable groups are the stuff of local legend. The Athena, however, recognizes a lesser-known side to Atkinson's efforts: her work to connect communities in need with businesses.
"There are people who assist the homeless, and who are very committed to them," Mitchell said. "But Pamela's special niche is that she serves as a liaison between business interests and the homeless. She reminds us that business has to have a healthy and thriving community within which to do business, and in order to have a healthy community, we have to be humanitarians and look after one another."
Atkinson makes it sound simple.
"Businesses in our community are not always aware of what they can accomplish," she said. "I've discovered that if you help businesses understand, first, what the needs are in the community, and second, what possible solutions are, it's amazing how galvanized businesses become in their efforts to help."
But it isn't just asking businesses to donate money, said Zions Bank spokesman Robert Brough. Atkinson serves on the bank's community advisory board, a group of local leaders representing various nonprofit organizations and causes providing social and humanitarian services.
Many community advocates solicit donations, and many businesses respond to those requests, Brough said. But Atkinson goes a few steps further.
"What sets Pamela apart is that, because of her personal involvement in the community, she's able to come forward with very specific ideas and specific needs that we can help to address," Brough said. "It isn't just a request for a check. It's about socks, and people who need luggage."
Several times a year, Zions Bank employees donate new socks, which Atkinson keeps in her car and distributes to people as needed, Brough said. When the bank holds its annual "Paint-A-Thon," where employee volunteers paint the home of someone in need, it donates extra T-shirts made for the event to Atkinson.
"These are the needs that Pamela is able to identify because she knows the people she's helping," Brough said.
Kathy Hillis, vice president of Women's Financial Services at Wells Fargo Bank, which sponsors the Athena Award, said Atkinson "made the corporate world more aware of their responsibilities."
"We all know Pamela as the person who takes care of the homeless," Hillis said. "But I think what's important, in the context of the Athena award, is that she was a corporate woman who took a personal mission and really influenced the corporate world. She's made a huge difference, and will continue to."
Atkinson hesitates, slightly, before talking about being a "role model."
"It's been very enjoyable to mentor young women in business and watch them progress over the years," she said. "That has given me great joy.
"My role in business has been one of the most exciting in my life. I've learned so much from others I've had both male and female mentors. But, I also have to admit that I've learned some of the most important lessons in life from those who have reported to me."
In her 19 years in Utah, Atkinson said she's seen the community grow and progress, perhaps slowly in some areas. She maintains that women in business still "have a way to go."
But, she said, "I think we're learning what we've got to do to succeed."
"What I'm seeing here in Utah is that women are being promoted and appointed to positions not because of their gender but because they're the best possible candidate for their position," Atkinson said. "I think that as more men and women learn the differences in management styles the left brain and the right brain, if you will I believe there will be more respect for the other. I think we're all changing."
But that doesn't mean we're there yet, she said, and Atkinson isn't about to stop. She'll keep stepping up, and asking the same of business."Businesses in Utah have even more potential to affect people's lives," she said. "They've done a really great job, but I know that there's even more that, if we all work together, can be accomplished to improve the quality of life for everyone."