Every family, every organization and every community needs one. Someone with great insights. Someone with broad experiences. Someone tenacious. Someone who delivers hard-fought results.
Waterbury is blessed with several – and no one who is more relied upon than the “Renaissance person” relentlessly working at the stand-up desk, in a tucked-away office, behind the drawn shades, of the hedge-lined office building, on Thomaston Avenue.
Cathy Awwad is the Executive Director of the Northwest Regional Workforce Investment Board (NRWIB), an organization that promotes business growth and economic opportunity by expediting talent matching, and by providing access to training programs that address skills gaps. NRWIB oversees workforce development efforts in 41 municipalities, of which Waterbury is a major one.
Awwad joined NRWIB in 2001, when the Board was only responsible for 12 municipalities and a $3 million budget. The funding budget is now $12 million – and wow, does she get the most out of each dollar.
NRWIB programs help equip local employers in a variety of industries – major verticals like manufacturing, banking and healthcare, as well as local niches for industrial sewing, seasonal farm workers and brownfield jobs. There are pathways for Native Americans and Veterans, and most of the Board’s work caters to both youth and adults.
Thousands of workers are shown valuable career pathways through Awwad and her team’s work. Need more quantifiable evidence for the success of these efforts? In 2011, unemployment was almost 17% in Waterbury. Prior to the 2020 pandemic, the rate was under 4%.
“That’s reflective of the strategies that have been put in place by the current administration, the economic development teams, the education providers and the training providers – creating that skilled workforce that will allow us to keep employers satisfied, keep our job seekers working, and keep the region vital.”
Cathy as a young girl growing up in Waterbury.
Cathy was born and raised in Waterbury – going through the public school system, and attending Notre Dame Academy for high school before spending her first year of college at the University of Connecticut, and later graduating from the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy.
Mom raised six daughters – Cathy being the oldest – and then the year that Cathy went to college, her mother went back to school and got her LPN so that she could help pay for the kids' tuitions.
Dad owned a local manufacturing shop.
“My dad got up every morning, was gone before the sun came up and didn't come home until it was down, working in manufacturing. He really gave me a bird's eye view of a lot of things.”
In fact, she tells the story about serving on the Board of the Public Works when the City was upgrading the sewer plant. In discussions with the Board of Aldermen, someone turned to her and said, “How do you know so much about sludge?”
Her response: “Well, it was a nightly conversation at the family dinner table!”
Cathy names both parents as heroes. Of her Waterbury upbringing, she also fondly recalls riding the bus with her grandmother – who worked second shift at Timex – and grabbing lunch with her at Woolworth’s or Howland-Hughes.
Cathy (back row, second from left) with parents and five sisters.
[Waterbury] was a very friendly city,” Awwad says. “It’s still a very friendly city. You can walk into every store and know everybody. It’s a big city with a small town mentality.
Awwad’s first job was delivering the afternoon edition of Bill Pape’s newspaper to fifty some odd neighbors in the Overlook neighborhood. As an adult, she bought a home thirteen doors down from where she grew up.
Young Cathy used the $5 per week earnings from the paper route to make her first purchase – a softball mitt at the old Bradlees. She still has the mitt, and still has a big passion for sports.
Cathy loves the Boston Red Sox – Carl Yastrzemski being a first idol of hers – and as a college student, even climbed the Citgo sign that hangs on top of a Kenmore Square building beyond Fenway Park to try to get a better view of a game. (Cathy calls this her “claim to fame.” The Beantown police did not agree, but let her off with a warning.)
The Citgo sign, Boston.
Awwad with Nick Augelli.
She loves the game of basketball – the Boston Celtics and, while borderline blashpemy for someone living in Connecticut, the Duke University Blue Devils.
There’s a third favorite team, too – the Crosby High School boys hoopsters.
You see, Cathy is the boy’s freshman basketball coach there, having started in 2018. To make sure there was a team, she took no payment for the job – unless you count the life-shaping influence she has on the young men. And yes, she counts this very highly.
She also values her relationship with legendary Crosby varsity coach Nick Augelli, whom she met in 1993 while they were on the Board of Aldermen. "He is truly a big brother and a mentor," says Awwad. (He's also the second-winningest boys basketball coach in Connecticut history, with over 700 victories.)
Awwad is the definition of “Renaissance person" – with a role in seemingly everything related to career pathways in the Waterbury region.
To just scratch the surface, she’s a former Waterbury Board of Education member, former Chief of Staff to the Mayor, former Alderwoman, former member of the Public Works Board, Board Member of the Naugatuck Valley Regional Development Corporation, and Chair of the Board for the Waterbury Development Corporation.
She has so much expertise, so many talents, that they’re laughable to list – and make even the most involved community member blush.
How many people can say that they were appointed to serve on the Governor's Workforce Development Council? And how many people do you know have a full-time job, but are also pharmacists on the side? (Yep, Cathy initially wanted to be a surgeon, and is in fact a registered Clinical Pharmacist, having also owned a pharmacy in Waterbury for years.)
Arguably her most remarkable feat is that, while having such an active professional life, Cathy was a single mother who raised four children.
“No one starts out wanting to be a single parent. Unfortunately, I divorced in 2001. We lived up on Euclid Avenue. [The kids and I] tried to at least eat together two or three nights a week. Crock pots were great ways to make sure everybody had a meal. I think in the end we were all better for the experience.”
Awwad with her four children.