A role model for us all

The email looked suspicious, but when housekeeper Sandra Foxx finally opened it, she got the surprise of her life.

Sandra Foxx standing outside.
A daily greeting from Sandra Foxx (pictured above) matters to the people who nominated her. “Sandra is a delightful person. She brightens the day, and I look forward to seeing her in the mornings,” said Marion Strandh, executive assistant to the Kenan Institute executive director. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

This email’s a scam, Sandra Foxx thought.

As a housekeeper at the Kenan Center, Foxx was reviewing her work schedule for Commencement weekend when she noticed a message saying, “Congratulations!”

Like many housekeepers, Foxx doesn’t have a work computer, so she checks email when and where she can. The possible scam message had been sitting in her inbox for two days before she saw it, and she was reluctant to open it. She asked co-workers what they thought about the email, then decided to click on it.

“It opened up with cartoon balloons floating out,” Foxx said.

The message urged Foxx to contact Catherine Pierce, assistant vice chancellor and chief of staff for University Development, and provided a phone number. So Foxx called the number. Pierce answered with “Congratulations!”

“Congratulations for what?” said a nervous Foxx.

Pierce told Foxx that she had won a C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award.

“It hit me, and I didn’t know where in the world I was,” recalled Foxx. “I said, ‘For real? Wait a minute. Let me sit down.’”

Foxx soon found out that several people at the Kenan Center, which houses the Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise and the William R. Kenan Jr. Charitable Trust and Funds, had nominated her for the award.

10,000 square feet every day

“The people who nominated me are so thoughtful,” said Foxx. “I am so thankful and consider it an honor just to be nominated for a Massey Award. To win one is really hard to believe. I was shocked.”

The co-workers who nominated Foxx recognized the traits that she has brought to her job as a housekeeper for 18 years at the Kenan Center and in several residence halls where undergraduates, graduate students and students with families live. She retired at the end of July.

The nominations hailed Foxx’s commitment to working on-site throughout the pandemic, cleaning some 10,000 square feet of offices, bathrooms, meeting rooms and lobbies on two floors of the Kenan Center every day. Some days, she had to cover the building’s entire 60,000 square feet.

“During COVID, Sandra was our essential employee,” said Jeff Post, Kenan Center manager. She constantly cleaned and sanitized all day, every day. Her teammates adore her and so do all the staff. She is a role model for us all.”

The recognition comes after a year in which, on top of the pandemic’s complications, Foxx’s sister Willie Mae and brother Burnice died from non-COVID-19 illnesses.

Foxx came to Carolina after being laid off from a factory. A native of Pittsboro, she married in 1980 and moved to Siler City, 32 miles southwest of Chapel Hill. Foxx’s son, Travis, was born in 1982. Her husband, Larry, died in 1997, and Travis died in 2008.

Since 2003, Foxx has made the daily 45-minute drive to and from campus.

Most mornings, she wakes at 4:15 a.m. and is soon on the back roads leading from Siler City to Chapel Hill to begin work at 6 a.m. “Most everybody else is just rolling out of bed then or snoring away when I’m working,” Foxx said.

She first checks the building’s third- and fourth-floor bathrooms, then returns to the third floor to clean offices. She dusts every surface, including hundreds of feet of handrails and molding of all sorts. She makes sure that meeting rooms are ready, and she is always on call to spruce up a room when meetings are scheduled quickly. Then, it’s back to thoroughly clean all bathrooms and on to the fourth floor to repeat the process.

“Sandra goes beyond what’s expected,” said Marion Strandh, executive assistant to the Kenan Institute executive director. “For example, as she cleans windows, she takes time to determine, ‘Is it a job done?’ or ‘Is it a job done well?’ The latter is a prevailing quality she exhibits in every facet of her responsibilities.”

When 3 p.m. arrives, her workday is over.

Before her sister died, Foxx would go from work to care for her. Now, she goes straight home to check on her brother Joseph. Weekends are for errands, chores and church.

The routine is consistent, just like the high level of Foxx’s work. People recognize her consistency.

With the onset of the pandemic, Foxx’s work became more important than ever, according to Greg Brown, executive director of the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise. “Even though Sandra is in a high-risk group, she never shied away from her commitment to the Kenan Institute and the faculty and staff,” Brown said.

Continuing to work on-site throughout the pandemic and being one of few people in the building on many days was hard. “That felt lonesome,” Foxx said.

Giving and receiving smiles

A daily greeting from Foxx matters to the people who nominated her. “Sandra is a delightful person. She brightens the day, and I look forward to seeing her in the mornings,” Strandh said.

Chenelle McInnis, advancement service manager, said that Foxx not only performs her job at an exemplary level, but also provides exceptional support and service to staff, students, faculty and visitors. “She always speaks, smiles and brings sunshine to your day,” McInnis said. “Sandra gives her all when she does something. She is kind, considerate and special to many. She goes beyond the call of duty. I’m proud to know her.”

The smiles of others make Foxx happy. “When a person greets me with a smile, I know I’ve done something right somewhere along the way,” she said. “The people coming into the building are who I’m thinking about when I clean. I want everything they see to be presentable, you know? I take pride in my work and I try to do it like I do in my own home.”

Foxx said that she and her co-workers are truly a team. “That may be why I won the award because they really know me. I always consider others and try to help others, if I can, along the way, just like they do. I try to be the team leader the best that I know how.”

This story is part of The Well’s coverage of the C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Awards, which recognize “unusual, meritorious or superior contributions” by University employees. Read about more winners.