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Building Community

Commitment to serve is lifelong charge for director of Topeka Habitat for Humanity, former WWA scholarship recipient

Janice Watkins posing at a build site

From The Ichabod - Winter 2020

Janice Watkins has always been a go-getter with a drive to do good. Her passion for nonprofit service started at an early age with a strong family influence. Her grandmother, Marge Roberts, was the founding director of Topeka’s Let’s Help and set the expectation of her family, ‘If you’re old enough to work, you’re going to serve.’

“I served food at my grandmother’s food bank from the time I was 5 years old on,” said Watkins, ba ’05. “I remember seeing the transient population come and go. And I remember issues with poverty and food access and things that impact the health of our community.”

The experience made a lasting impression. Now, as the executive director for Topeka Habitat for Humanity, Watkins is continuing to do her part to make a difference in the lives of Topekans.

A Hand Up

After graduating high school, Watkins moved to Chicago, where she planned to attend college and join the Peace Corps. When she learned she was expecting her first child, Gabriel, she moved back to Topeka and enrolled at Washburn University. On top of being a new mom and taking on a full course load each semester, Watkins still found time to tutor at the English writing center, work at the Washburn Review and work part-time at Kansas Legal Services, a nonprofit law firm and community education organization. Her ambitious schedule was assisted by scholarships she received from the Washburn Women’s Alliance – an organization providing financial assistance to help single parents so they can focus on continuing their education.

“The scholarships allowed me to pay my housing costs and to continue to focus on school without having a lot of student loans,” Watkins said. “I am so proud of that degree because the skills I learned have served me very well in my career.”

Last summer, Watkins returned the favor by joining the WWA board and the scholarship committee.

“I reviewed 50 applications from students who were just like I once was – working and trying to do their best for their children,” Watkins said. “I read their stories and thought, ‘I know exactly what that feels like.’ To come full circle and be a part of that was pretty incredible.”

While at Washburn, Watkins met her husband, Travis Watkins, bba ’07, and their family grew with the birth of their daughter, Eden. A few years after graduating from Washburn with an English degree, Janice had the opportunity to go back to Kansas Legal Services full time. Then in 2016, at the encouragement of her boss and mentor, attorney Bethany Roberts – now a judge in Douglas County – Watkins took the job at Topeka Habitat for Humanity.

“Janice has always demonstrated such a strong commitment to public service, and you can’t teach that level of dedication to humanity. In addition, her organizational and leadership skills are unmistakable,” Roberts said. “When an opportunity like Habitat presented itself, I can’t think of anyone who would be better than Janice.”

Leading the Change

Topeka Habitat for Humanity continues to make a difference under Watkins’ leadership.

“We have changed locations, added new programs, jumped into neighborhood revitalization, and we have a strong aging-in-place program that allows aging individuals to live in their homes with autonomy, dignity and respect by addressing deferred maintenance and accessibility. We are constantly looking at ways we can make a greater impact,” Watkins said.

A small staff of 11 runs the Topeka Habitat. Six employees work in the ReStore, where donated furniture and building materials are sold to raise funds to build homes in Shawnee County. Five employees, including Watkins, manage the service aspect of the organization. Together, they serve more than 300 families a year with various community outreach programs like the Tool Bus, which is a mobile tool lending library, and the Voices of Women, a nine-week course in home maintenance.

“I’m blessed to have this team of innovative dreamers and people who think outside of the box,” Watkins said. “We come together with all of our ideas to break a problem down piece by piece, resulting in some incredible things.”
On top of her work at the Topeka Habitat, Watkins is active in the community and has volunteered with SilverSundays through the Silverbackks volunteer organization for the last seven years. There she serves meals to homeless and transient individuals – proving no matter how busy you are, you can always find time for the things that are important.

“I strive to make our community better to show people there’s power in believing in yourself, because that’s what someone did for me,” Watkins said.

Janice Watkins and her family posing at a build site


The Ichabod magazine fall 2020

The Ichabod tells our story with features on alumni, faculty, staff, students and friends, along with the latest campus news. Read the 2020 fall edition online and look for it in mailboxes in October.

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Topeka, KS 66604 Phone: 785.670.4483