January 13, 2009

A Warm Heart Behind An Open Door

Alma Scott-Buczak ’74 improves lives of NJ Transit workers, children in New York, and the underprivileged

A grease gun, a spark plug gapper, and a good set of wrenches in the hands of a master mechanic keep the buses and trains of the New Jersey Transit running. But a box of tissues, a jar of candy, and a listening ear?

If you’re Alma Scott-Buczak ’74, assistant executive director of human resources for the transit system, they’re tools of the trade, what this master people “mechanic” needs to keep 11,000 employees functioning at their best. Since 2002, she’s helped employees through crises, found jobs for the unemployed, and offered a warm heart behind an open door.

Maybe it’s the economics major or the past history as an economics researcher at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York that gets heads scratching. Going from numbers to people seems an enormous journey.

“What I think surprises people about HR is how much of it has little to do with people,” Scott-Buczak notes. “It has more to do with budgets, money, analyzing resources, planning, and forecasting.” Blending analytics, people skills, and a keen eye for the needs of the organization helps her balance “the needs of an individual with the needs of a company to find a win-win in every situation.”

And Scott-Buczak very much likes everyone to win.

In her previous HR position at the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, Scott-Buczak received a late-night phone call from a distraught, newly appointed sales manager. “She said, ‘I need to fire them all,’” Scott-Buczak recalls. “So I talked her through what was happening, helped her figure out how to best help each member of her team, and they went on to become the number one district in the nation—without firing anyone.”

“I do try to think of ways to help people avoid problems, whether it’s an employee, manager, or the organization overall,” she says.

It’s a theme that defines her life. For when the day is done and the office falls still, Scott-Buczak’s work to help others continues.

As president of her local chapter of the National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women’s Club Inc., Scott-Buczak coordinates fundraisers that provide underprivileged women with suitable work clothes. Proceeds from fashion shows and vendors fairs the group organizes go toward providing $5,000-7,000 in college scholarships annually. And through the work of the group’s international division, girls in Ghana and other African nations receive dark-skinned dolls to help them foster a greater sense of self and avoid resorting to bleaching their skin, a pernicious issue caused, in part, by only seeing dolls with fair complexions.

Scott-Buczak looks to the needs of children through her decade-long position on the board of directors of the New York City Council on Adoptable Children, which finds homes for children who otherwise would get lost in the foster care system or be passed over because they are too old or need special services. She works in youth ministry at her church as directress of religious education, often blending Bible stories with math (“If Jesus had two fish and made them into a thousand, how many times did he have to multiply them?”) to meet not only spiritual needs, but ever-present schooling deficiencies. She and her husband, William Buczak ’74, also help the church’s recent grads buy clothes suitable for job interviews and assist in defraying the cost of textbooks for those just entering college.

The need to meet difficult challenges with faith for success undergirds Scott-Buczak’s life. As part of the first class of women at Lafayette, she met the challenge of being one of the tiny fraction of African-American women on campus by becoming a cheerleader and the president of the Association of Black Collegians. Even then, her focus was on others, as she helped found the Black Children Can tutoring program in Easton.

As a self-labeled “poor kid from the ghetto,” she knows the value of education. “Within a week of getting my SAT scores, I had a box of letters from colleges all over the country saying, ‘We will give you a full scholarship, just come to our school.’” Her high school guidance counselor didn’t see it that way, though. “She looked at me and said, ‘You should go to the local state teachers college because that’s best for people like you.’ At that point, I completely ignored her. About a week later, Lafayette invited me to visit. I fell in love with the campus. I still had no idea how I was going to pay for school, but through the generosity of Lafayette and its alumni, I was able to get a fabulous education. For this I will be eternally grateful.”

And she’s kept learning. In 1987, Scott-Buczak added a master’s degree in human resources from The New School in New York City. The way she sees it, that extra knowledge is another tool to help her keep New Jersey Transit and its many employees humming.

So why does a woman who works every day tending the careers and lives of others spend her free time doing the same?

“When it’s all said and done, I want to stand face to face with Jesus Christ and know that He is pleased with how I represented Him in this world. That’s my guiding principle,” she says. “I often joke with the director of diversity, who’ll say, ‘No good deed goes unpunished,’ to which I’ll say, ‘But do good anyway.’”

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