Alumna gives back with gifts, time and expertise

When Cathy Saunders graduated from the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Social Work in 1976, she did not envision a career working with older people. She had a hard time finding her ideal position, however, and took a job in a nursing home.

To her surprise, it suited her well. “I loved it,” Saunders said. “It was so rewarding.”

That first job set Saunders (B.S.W. ’76; M.S. ’82) on a course to becoming a gerontologist, a health care professional who specializes in working with the elderly. She earned a master’s in gerontology from the College of Health Professions in 1982.

Saunders has served as vice chair of the Virginia Alzheimer’s Commission, as president of the MCV Alumni Association of VCU and as a member of the College of Health Professions alumni board of directors. Saunders worked for the state Department of Social Services before becoming a real estate agent 14 years ago.

Even in her real estate work, Saunders incorporates her gerontology expertise. She focuses on helping to relocate older people to favorable new homes or retirement facilities.

Saunders has been an ardent supporter of VCU, not only helping new faculty members find housing but also making gifts.

“I love the complexity of the university — the excitement and diversity of programs,” she said. “I became a cheerleader for VCU.”

A couple of years ago, Saunders provided funding and call-center space for the College of Health Professions’ annual calling program, where students ask alumni to make a gift to their alma mater. She also has spearheaded efforts to garner more alumni involvement in the school of Social Work and College of Health Professions, working to contact others and to create databases to track alumni.

In 2006, Saunders took her devotion a step further, establishing the Cathy Saunders Career Gerontologist Scholarship in the College of Health Professions.

The scholarship supports a deserving student studying gerontology.

“The Cathy Saunders Career Gerontologist award was established to recognize a student with lengthy experience in the field of aging who is furthering her or his academic gerontological training in order to enhance existing skills,” said E. Ayn Welleford, M.S.G., Ph.D., chair and associate professor in the school’s Department of Gerontology. “This award embodies Ms. Saunders’ commitment to the Department of Gerontology’s mission: ‘Improving elder care through education.’ We are fortunate to have her as an alumna. Virginia elders are fortunate to have her as an advocate.”

At first, Saunders said, she waffled over whether funding a scholarship was financially feasible, but she realized the impact her philanthropy would have and found a way to make the commitment.

“It’s very easy to do, to make a contribution, and I did,” she said. “Once you do it once, you realize you can do it every year.”

Saunders values education above all else, and she thinks all alumni should give back to their alma mater to show appreciation for their education.

“We all have a responsibility to give back — where would we be without our education?” Saunders said. “We need to recognize the value of that education and give others the opportunity to benefit from it.”

To make a gift to the College of Health Professions, contact Jessica Gurganus, senior director of development, at (804) 828-3269 or