A very special bond: Helena Allison

Editor's Note: Beginning with this issue we introduce a new feature where we profile a member of APWA. Our first member to be profiled is Helena Allison, Assistant Civil Engineer, Public Works Department, City of Davis, California, and President of the Sacramento Chapter.

Tell us about your background: I was born in Prague, Czech Republic. At that time it was known as Czechoslovakia and was under a communist regime. I grew up in that repressive environment and witnessed the '68 invasion by the Russians. I also lived in India for three years with my parents while my father was there on a work assignment.

Shortly after graduating from high school in Prague, I defected to Italy with the hope of immigrating to America. While in Italy, I had to live in a refugee camp in the city of Triest for about four months until I was able to immigrate to America. My first stop in America was Bethlehem, PA. When I got to America I didn't speak English. In fact I had no education short of a high school diploma from Prague. I knew five languages, but English wasn't one of them. I spoke my native Czech, Slovak (my mother is Slovak), Russian, German, and Italian (which I improved while in the refugee camp). It took me about four months to learn enough English to allow me to support myself at various odd jobs, such as nurse's aid, door-to-door salesperson for water softeners and magazines, and teaching German at an elementary school.

Later, I moved to New Mexico and put myself through college at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. In order to support myself through college I was working three part-time jobs. I also received a ski racing scholarship that paid for my books. I graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering.

From New Mexico I moved to San Jose, California and worked in the private sector for six years. Afterwards, I joined the Public Works Department at the City of Davis. I've been with the City for over 13 years working on development and capital improvement projects.

Looking back, I'd have to say that it was quite a challenge once I was in the United States. It takes lots of effort to try to make something of yourself, especially when your cultural background is different and you don't speak the language.

Favorite Book: My favorite book is Simulation-Based Reliability Assessment for Structural Engineers by Pavel Marek, who is a structural engineer, researcher and well-published professor. He also happens to be my dad. He has taught at Leigh University, Santa Clara University, San Jose State, and Edmonton.

Hobbies/Interests: I love sports. Skiing, basketball, soccer, tennis, hockey. Most of all I like watching my four children in their athletic endeavors. My #1 son Jakub (who was also born in Prague) is a member of the USA men's alpine ski team and competed in the downhill in the 2002 Winter Olympics in Utah. My #2 son David plays basketball, likes to snowboard and ski, my #1 daughter Nikol plays competitive soccer and basketball and is also a good skier, and my #3 son Michal just began soccer and skiing. I love to travel, enjoy music, dancing, opera, and playing chess. I enjoy photography and scrapbooking, family movie making and playing games with my family. I am an avid giraffe collector and my husband, Mike, supports and joins in all my hobbies and interests.

Role Model: My mom and dad are great role models and also my brother Pavel (successful movie director and producer in Prague). Sophia Loren is my favorite celebrity role model. She's a very smart, beautiful and classy lady. She stars in one of my favorite movies, "Two Women."

Tell us about the City of Davis: Davis is located about 60 miles east of San Francisco and approximately 12 miles west of Sacramento. Davis is renowned for its bike paths, concern for the environment (for example, constructed wetlands), innovative and cutting-edge approaches to problem solving (use of roundabouts and raised intersections for traffic calming), and citizen participation. The City of Davis has a population of approximately 63,000 people. The Davis Public Works Department employees 99 people with 18 employees in the Engineering Services Division. The Public Works Department budget for Fiscal Year 2002-03 is $22 million for O&M, and an additional $10 million for Capital Improvements. Davis is also home to the University of California, Davis.

Career Accomplishments: I've been a member of APWA for 16 years. I went through the Membership Chair position all the way to Vice President, and now I'm the President of the Sacramento Chapter that serves 24 counties with 520 members. I worked on the design and construction of the light rail transit in San José, and helped implement the use of raised intersections, bulb-outs, and roundabouts as traffic calming measures in Davis.

Tell us why you like being a member of APWA: Our organization provides great educational opportunities and seminars. We do a lot of professional networking, and serve our communities. Each year we award several scholarships and conduct student outreach programs. We cover a broad range of technical topics that have positive results for our members. One thing that makes APWA better than other organizations is that the more you put in the more you get out. I believe people who are members of APWA have a very special bond, because we are all dealing with things that serve or benefit others, whether it's sewer, water, streets, traffic, housing tracts, bike paths or dams. We truly provide tangible services for others.