"Giving back" is a central part of Susie Ferrara's mindset, as confirmed through decades of words and actions. A Savannah River Site employee since 1989, she is in gear this year as chairman of the United Way of Aiken County's fundraising campaign.
"I think I have never been a child that sat still very well, but it's given me an opportunity to meet a lot of people in our community and get involved in different ways," she said. "I grew up in a town ... that did so much for me as a kid, so I think it's the right thing to do, when you get older, to do your part to give back," she said.
Ferrara's support has gone to such organizations as the Georgia-Carolina Girl Scout Council, Aiken SPCA, First Tee of Aiken, American Heart Association, Aiken Center for the Arts, Aiken Junior Woman's Club, Greater Aiken Chamber of Commerce and the University of South Carolina's dance company. Over the course of decades, she has racked up mileage in high heels, ballet slippers, running shoes and Army boots.
"I like to get involved," she said. "I get bored easily, but I've been blessed that I've had a lot of opportunities and people have asked for help. It's kind of fun. I sleep well at night. Usually, I'm pretty much worn out by the end of the day."
Her workdays, at the nuclear reservation, have her managing the outreach effort to technical schools for Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, having come on board during the period when DuPont was ending its decades of involvement at the site and Westinghouse was just picking up speed as DuPont's successor.
She started as an information specialist in the public affairs department under Westinghouse, working in the same overall setting where her dad spent more than four decades as a technical engineer.
She also shared a memory about the process of getting on board. "Actually, my interview was with the DuPont public affairs manager and the Westinghouse manager at the same time, and it was like 'Crossfire,'" she said, recalling a TV news show that usually featured a guest engaged in debate with hosts from two sides of the political spectrum.
"Dad worked out at the plant for 42 years, so when he came from work ... he goes, 'How did you do?'" She said she responded by telling him that the outlook was less than bright, and that she should prepare for graduate school.
A couple of suspenseful weeks followed, as her acceptance letter was lost in the mail. Her dad investigated and, about a week after the letter turned up, Ferrara's career began. She has been on the job since April of 1989.
Among Ferrara's neighbors based in downtown Aiken is the Rev. Brian Coulter, chief of staff at First Presbyterian Church of Aiken. He accepted an invitation to address Ferrara's impact.
"She's always helping out. She's always willing to be there for us when we need it, and she's an ordained deacon, so that means she's one of the leaders of this church," Coulter said.
"She's been ... serving very faithfully in that spot for a while now, and a deacon is one that we characterize as a person of spiritual character, honest repute, exemplary life, showing brotherly and sisterly love, warm sympathies and sound judgment, and ... the congregation saw that in her. I see that in her, and so we elected her to that spot. She's wonderful."
The Aiken Civic Ballet has had Ferrara on board over the years, and one of her associates with the ballet has been Deedee Vaughters. The two are also exercise partners on Friday mornings, Vaughters noted.
She described Ferrara as "one of the most energetic and positive people I know."
She added, "She will work tirelessly on any project that she's involved with, be it the United Way or be it the Aiken Civic Ballet; and she loves the Aiken community, and you can tell in all that she does. You can follow her social media feed, any of that, and she is just so positive and pro-Aiken."
Rick Berry recalled one of his experiences from years ago when he was the publicity director for North Augusta's Habitat for Humanity affiliate.
The house-building organization suffered the loss of an entire trailer's load of construction supplies, and Ferrara approached Berry, through their mutual association with the North Augusta Chamber of Commerce, and arranged for a donation from SRS, to help Habitat recover from its loss.
"SRS stepped up and made the entire loss good," and the ensuing publicity helped stir up donations to local Habitat efforts for the next couple of years, Berry noted.
Vaughters commented, "Susie Ferrara is Aiken. She was born here. She was raised here, and she ... works full-time and then volunteers, and she just throws all into every one of her volunteer opportunities. You would think that she has a 40-hour-a-week job volunteering, and a 40-hour-a-week job down at the site. She has so much energy. It's unbelievable."
Energy – the nuclear variety – has a major place in the family's history, Ferrara recalled, pointing out that her father, Tony, worked at Argonne National Laboratory, a Chicago-area facility that played a huge role in some of the Manhattan Project's work on nuclear reactors.
Another Argonne employee, George Chmelik, invited Tony Ferrara home for dinner, introducing him to Chmelik's sister, Sally Chmelik, who went on to become Susie Ferrara's mom. "My uncle was responsible for introducing my parents, so we really are a nuclear family," Ferrara said.
"Instead of going to war, my dad proposed to mom, and they moved here to Aiken in 1954, and dad started working at the plant, and mom was a schoolteacher."
Ferrara's mother started teaching at North Aiken Elementary School and then moved to Kennedy Middle for most of her classroom career.
Susie, on her way to becoming a University of South Carolina graduate, rose through the ranks by way of "old Aiken Elementary when it was in the library," Kennedy Middle and South Aiken High "before they had a building," which meant that the Thoroughbreds were packed into the building now occupied by Schofield Middle.
"We had no building, no football field. We were all packed like sardines in Schofield, so it was really great when they first divided Aiken High School."
Her last year of high school, she added, was spent on the current campus of South Aiken High.
Ferrara's early years included plenty of time at Fermata Club, near the family's home, and she picked up the exercise habit. Summers meant plenty of swimming, and the cooler months included dancing under the late Carl Crosby's guidance, as a member of the Aiken Civic Ballet. She also taught basic ballet during her years as a student at the University of South Carolina.
Much more recently, she took part in Augusta in Army Boots, a Fort Gordon-based program designed to help acquaint local professionals with some of the basics of Army life. She wrote, in response to the 2015 experience, that the Army installation's men and women "exemplify a strong work ethic, excellence, leadership and rolling up their sleeves to get the job done."
It was, she added, "an opportunity of a lifetime for me to spend 28 hours with an outstanding group of people."
Along with spending a couple of days in Army boots, she has also logged thousands of miles in running shoes, in the course of preparing for and completing several marathons around the eastern U.S. Other milestones included completing Augusta's half-Ironman triathlon in 2016, at age 50 ("I felt pretty proud about that, at that age"). Ferrara also raised money for needy veterans in the process.
Recalling the triathlon, she said her swimming background came in handy. "I had some colleagues here at the Savannah River Site that encouraged me to do it, and we all trained together and had a big time; and it was one of those life events that you train with friends, and you don't think you can do crazy stuff like that, but it was neat to do it and live to tell the tale," she said.
"She cares about the people of this community," said Ellen Luton, director of resource development for the United Way of Aiken County. "Aiken is her hometown, and she wants to do what's best for the Aiken community."
Ferrara said this week that the local United Way board has reported being on the verge of reaching the 2019 overall fundraising goal of $2,348,848.
"Our leadership team said that we will stay the course," Ferrara said. "We know that every dollar counts until we reach that goal. I think we're very, very close."