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2017 Torch Award

Karren Helsel-Spry recognized for women’s advocacy and equity

For over three decades, Karren Helsel-Spry has served as an advocate for women at the University of Delaware and her message to those celebrating her recognition by the Women’s Caucus as the 2017 Torch Award recipient was a simple yet powerful one: get involved and help someone if you can.

“The smallest effort can make such a big difference in someone’s life,” said Helsel-Spry. “Read someone’s cover letter or resume, provide a reference or be a mentor. Stand up for someone if you know there is an injustice because you never know when you’ll need help or someone to stand up for you some day.”

This tireless spirit, positive attitude and commitment to serving as a resource for faculty and staff are what prompted Shannon Lennon, associate professor of kinesiology and applied physiology, to nominate Helsel-Spry for the award.

“Karren truly embodies what the Torch Award means,” said Lennon. “She may not have changed policies here at UD but she has and continues to change the lives of women here on campus, from students to faculty and staff.”

Helsel-Spry joined the Women’s Caucus board in 2013, but her advocacy has been ongoing throughout her career. Early on, she worked as a mentor to women to help them understand the resources available to them, in a professional capacity through the former Faculty Staff Assistance program and grievance assistance for staff.

In one case, Helsel-Spry worked with a staff member, acted as a reference and taught her how to write employee evaluations, applications and cover letters, ultimately resulting in the staff member securing a supervisor position. She also fought for women who she felt were being unfairly treated, and met with University administration and union representatives to be current on policies and understand employee rights so she could serve those in need.

Lennon also pointed out that beyond mentoring, Helsel-Spry often thinks of others and their needs. After Sept. 11, 2001, Helsel-Spry initiated a support group for women on campus whose sons and daughters had gone to war, and the group ended up supporting several men as well. The group was organized through Human Resources, but it was Helsel-Spry who pushed it forward, said Lennon.

Helsel-Spry was an elected representative for the Staff Advisory Council Committee for four years, where she served as a mentor and advocate for many women who were undergoing difficulties or challenges in their positions. Though the committee was dissolved, she now serves on the nonexempt Staff Advisory Council on the Grievance Hearing Board.

“Whether helping faculty up for promotion and tenure to understanding the appeals process to befriending students and helping them get involved in campus life, Karren’s view is that most people would offer the same support – but I don’t think so,” said Lennon. “One of Karren’s greatest attributes is her ability to connect with all women, regardless of race, medical condition or position, and one of her greatest gifts is helping women find their own voice and knowing the resources and rights they have.”

Helsel-Spry credits her mother as her role model, and noted, “she taught us to help others and to stand up for ourselves and for what’s right.”

About the Torch Award

The Torch Award, which is presented annually, recognizes an individual who has “carried the torch for women’s equality” at the University. The torch recalls the lighting of a torch for the 1977 National Women’s Conference, symbolically charting a course between the first Women’s Rights Convention of 1848 and the modern movement for women’s liberation. It was selected by the Women’s Caucus to represent the past and present efforts to achieve equality and improve the quality of employment for women at UD.

Helsel-Spry received the award at a luncheon in her honor earlier this spring.


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