Alumni of Distinction: Sammye Pokryfki

by joey  |   

Sammye Pokryfki, B.S.W. '98, M.S.W. '99, B.A. English '06 will receive the 2016 Alumni Humanitarian award at Green & Gold Gala on Oct. 1.

Sammye Pokryfki poses for a photo in the Rasmuson Foundation in Anchorage, Alaska Wednesday, Sep. 14, 2016.

Sammye Pokryfki, 2016 Alumni Humanitarian recipient. (Photo by Phil Hall / University of Alaska Anchorage)

Social work teaches students to see the value in every individual, all while working to benefit the lives of others. Sammye Pokryfki instills these values in her work in philanthropy every day at the Rasmuson Foundation.

Sammye is the senior vice president at Rasmuson Foundation, overseeing the foundation's grant-making programs, which provide a significant and visible impact across the state (investing $28 million in 53 communities just last year). Though not involved in direct care, her social work background is absolutely essential to her approach. After all, the Rasmuson Foundation's mission-"To promote a better life for Alaskans"-is a broad-based message of assistance. For a lifelong Alaskan like Sammye, that provides plenty of motivation and inspiration.

"The values of the Foundation are so closely aligned with my personal values," she noted. "That's when you know when you've found the sweet spot in your career."

In recognition of her continued focus on benefiting Alaskans-both in her philanthropic career and her commitment to volunteering-Sammye will receive the Alumni of Achievement Alumni Humanitarian award at Green & Gold Gala on Oct. 1.

Improving the quality of life for Alaskans

"Our mission is to improve the quality of life for Alaskans," Sammye said of her role at Rasmuson Foundation. That mission plays out in artist grants, recreational facilities, public housing and more throughout the state.

Sammye values every corner of the Foundation's positive outreach, but her passion lies in health and social services. Earlier in her career, she worked as a chemical dependency counselor, then a rural outreach coordinator for youth health care. She served as executive director of United Way of Mat-Su before joining Rasmuson Foundation in 2005. She is a founding member-and current board member-of Foraker Group, which provides business advice to Alaska's nonprofits.

She's focused on social services throughout her career, and now champions initiatives throughout the state. When asked about her most meaningful projects, she cites a litany of vital support programs.

For one, there are the two $5 million projects she helped arrange, in partnership with state and federal government offices, to renovate the cash-strapped network of domestic-violence shelters across the state. "I'm proud of being a part of that," she said. "I think that's important and has made a big difference."

Likewise, she values the Foundation's involvement in rural clinics and statewide initiatives like Recover Alaska. Through both direct care and policy advising, the initiative aims to reduce the impacts of excessive alcohol consumption in Alaska.

Sammye also supports the supporters, calling Rasmuson Foundation's sabbatical program for nonprofit directors a "great gift." These grant-funded sabbaticals allow nonprofit directors to stay energized on their mission and focused on positive change.

But regardless of the program, Sammye most appreciates Rasmuson Foundation's focus on the people involved. The process isn't just transactional, she says. "It's very much about maintaining and nurturing relationships in a variety of ways." It's people-over-paperwork, as she works with hundreds of like-minded grantees to identify long-term solutions.

Sammye's team of eight program staff stay deeply connected with the foundation's beneficiaries throughout the state. And that doesn't mean emails and phone calls. "There's really no substitute for going out and meeting the people who are doing these wonderful projects in the community," she said.

Social work skills

It all comes back to people, as any social work career must. Sammye acknowledges that many view social work as problem-focused and reaction-based. "I think most social workers would say we have way more to offer than a focus on problems," Sammye noted. "The M.S.W. is an extremely diverse preparation for a wide variety of fields."

Graduates aren't just problem-identifiers; they're solution-seekers. It's a small semantic shift with major implications. For one, not all social workers are involved in direct service, nor do they have to be. "One of my professors said we need social workers everywhere," Sammye noted. "We need them in direct service and we need them in higher office and we need them everywhere in between."

It's why she stays heavily involved in UAA's social work department. Nearly every year since she graduated, Sammye has served as a field instructor for current social work students, accepting high-achieving mentees for a yearlong partnership. The relationship allows UAA students to see the diversity of the career field, and allows Sammye to reconnect with her social work roots.

"The skills you learn as a social worker-problem solving, communication-are really valuable across many different sectors ... It's a great degree," she said.

"I've been asked, 'Did your education prepare you?' Unquestionably yes."

Adding to the community

Sammye carries a commitment to Alaskans in her personal life as well, and encourages everyone to do the same. She volunteers as a court-appointed special advocate (CASA), providing focus and support for youth in the child protection system. In custody battles, a CASA meets everyone in the child's life, advocates when necessary, and makes sure the most positive difference is reached in the child's life. It's difficult work, but highly effective and deeply needed.

Though CASA is one route to take, Sammye encourages volunteering in the community at any level. She's honored to receive the humanitarian award from her hometown university-where she's received three degrees-as it provides a platform for her message. We may not all be social workers, we may not all receive grants, but everyone can help create a better life for Alaskans.

"[Volunteering] is way to get really engaged in community life," she said. "It changes your whole orientation in your community, and will open things that you don't even know are out there."

Creative Commons License "Alumni of Distinction: Sammye Pokryfki" is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.