July 26, 2000
It didn't come wrapped in fancy packaging, but Elsie Coignet says the gift her coworkers gave her was one of the most beautiful she'd ever received. Coignet's present was eight weeks of vacation time donated from colleagues who work with her at Tulane.
A legal secretary in the associate university counsel's office at the health sciences center, Coignet found herself in need of extra leave time to care for her husband, Linus Coignet, former associate general counsel at Tulane, after he fell and injured himself this spring. Linus, who also suffers from the degenerative disease multiple sclerosis, has been on disability leave from the university for the past few years.
"I'm overwhelmed," says Elsie after learning about her coworkers' donations. "I know how valuable vacation time is."
Through a program started last year on a suggestion from the Tulane Staff Advisory Council, the human resources office allows Tulane staff members to donate vacation time to a general pool or to a specific person.
"I am astounded by the success of the program," says the program's administrator, Frank Currie, director of employee relations and staff development. "The unselfish generosity of our staff members never ceases to amaze me."
In the past year, more than 100 staff members have donated time to the program, Currie says, benefiting about 50 staffers who needed the extra time due to their own medical emergency or that of an immediate family member.
In Coignet's case, Peggy Williams, administrative secretary in the health sciences center's public relations office, donated two weeks of her own time when she learned that Coignet had almost exhausted her own accumulated sick and vacation leave caring for her husband because of his illness over the years.
After his recent fall, Linus required almost constant attention and Williams says she wanted to make sure that Elsie had the time off from work to properly care for him.
"I wanted to help out," Williams says. "We're all supposed to be brothers and sisters in this world."
She started a campaign for donated vacation time from friends and acquaintances of the Coignets. Williams' goal was to collect enough time to allow Coignet to augment her own vacation and sick leave and take a total of 12 weeks of leave, which is the amount of time off allowed under the Family and Medical Leave Act.
"I told her, 'You don't worry, we'll have those weeks for you,'" Williams says. Gathering donated time from Coignet's colleagues proved a fairly easy task, Williams adds. All she needed to do was describe the family's predicament to coworkers and the hours came pouring in. "I knew that if they knew what she was going through, they would give some time, even if they only had one day to donate," she says.
Bell Nelson, desk dispatcher in the health sciences center's public safety office, says she donated a week of vacation time without a second thought.
"It wasn't hard for me to give anything to Elsie and Linus," Nelson says. "They are both so sweet and always have a pleasant attitude toward everybody. If anyone deserves it, they do."
Germaine Nash, lead systems programmer in the health sciences center's data systems office, Tim Riley, manager of data systems, and Mary Smith, associate vice president of the equal opportunity office, also donated vacation time.
"I can take my vacation another time," says Smith, who donated two weeks. "I felt Elsie and Linus needed it more than I do right now."
Currie says staff members are more likely to donate to a specific person rather than the general pool. He adds that the university reviews the program annually to determine its cost to the institution. From Elsie Coignet's standpoint, the program is a valuable benefit to Tulane employees. "Words cannot express how grateful I am," she says. "Sometimes you feel you're so alone in these situations, and now I know I'm not alone."
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