"Really, I don't think I'm all that exciting," first lady of Coastal Carolina University Terri DeCenzo says over the phone.
It's a humble, knee-jerk reaction from someone who is up to her elbows in charity work for the university and overall community. But the wife of CCU president Dave DeCenzo, mother of four and advocate for students, women and those in need, wouldn't have it any other way. "Being in the role of first lady of Coastal Carolina University has been a great blessing," she says. "I've enjoyed the opportunity to serve the community in ways that wouldn't have been available to me before."
Born in Baltimore into a family of eight, DeCenzo's passion for service was first fueled in high school, when she was a candy striper at a local hospital. She graduated from St. Joseph Hospital School of Nursing and Towson University simultaneously, followed by a career as a hospital registered nurse in critical care, open heart surgery and an inner-city trauma unit.
"As anyone involved in health care can tell you, there is great reward in caring for others," says DeCenzo. "There have been many patients and families that touched my life and I am grateful for the value that has added to my perspective and my own values."
The DeCenzos moved to the Myrtle Beach area in 2002, when Dave DeCenzo became dean of CCU's E. Craig Wall Sr. College of Business Administration; he was named president of the university in 2007. The move, however, never disrupted Terri DeCenzo's selfless service to the public.
She is on the boards for the Foundation for Georgetown Hospital System, the American Red Cross and myTERMS, a nonprofit that focuses on the self-esteem of young girls. She is also an adviser to the Safe Families Initiative's efforts to establish a Family Justice Center in Georgetown County; the 2011 co-chairperson for the March of Dimes' March for Babies in Horry County; chairperson for the Promise Committee for the Susan G. Komen Foundation for Horry County; and an ambassador for Vision 2020 (a national convention for women in leadership). Additionally, she works with a youth ministry, Habitat for Humanity, the Cancer Coalition, as well as Freedom Readers, the PAW program and Teach My People, after-school reading programs involving CCU students.
Terri DeCenzo is also executive director for Women in Philanthropy and Leadership at CCU, which seeks to empower women. "Last spring, we awarded 13 scholarships to those in need," she says. "Many of our recipients are nontraditional students or women who have struggled working two jobs and still trying to get an education. Their tenacity and spirit inspires and motivates me to do more. ... I believe in life we should always be reaching behind us to bring others up, and ahead of us to be brought to a new level. It is this model that forms the circle of giving and support that we have embraced."
WIPL will hold its inaugural all-day Women's Leadership Conference and Celebration of Inspiring Women March 25. The goals of the conference, according to Terri DeCenzo, are to ultimately recognize and celebrate women who have made an impact in the state of South Carolina, nationally and globally through their service, courage, wisdom and leadership.
DeCenzo is certainly a woman who has made an impact on the community that surrounds her. But being superwoman also means being human - doing what you can do within a time frame that's humanly possible. "As this is Dave's first presidency, I never dreamed of the time commitment involved," she says. "There is always something to do and somewhere to be. ... The good news is that I have wonderful friends here who have become a family to me. They support our roles.
"The balance [between motherhood and other commitments] is an ongoing struggle," she continues. "I have always been supported by Dave in the ability to put my children first. I try not to miss their events and activities. I think both of us realize that the role of parent is the most important and rewarding of all roles we have in life. I always advise moms to enjoy each moment; they go by quickly and they are irreplaceable."
While she may not think she's exciting, it's certainly exciting for the community to have such a champion for women, families and service in a position to make a difference.