Inquirer: New city representative a whirlwind of positive energy
December 11, 2015
Julia Terruso, Inquirer Staff Writer
Sheila Hess considers the birth defect that left her paralyzed from the knees down a gift.
Really, she says.
Because, without it, Hess’ parents might never have moved from Southern California to Philadelphia, as they did in 1969 to get their infant daughter treatment at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
She might never have grown up in a bustling and loving Grays Ferry neighborhood and fallen in love with the city, where on a weekly basis she zips from charity board meeting to volunteer outing to ritzy gala, working 10-hour days at Independence Blue Cross in between, all the while propelling herself on two aluminum crutches.
“She’s Miss Philadelphia, everything is about Philadelphia,” said her husband, Michael. “And she wants every opportunity to make Philadelphia shine even more than it does already.”
Sheila Hess, 46, might be one of the city’s most gregarious promoters and behind-the-scenes networkers – a fitting resumé for her next role, as city representative under Mayor-elect Jim Kenney.
“She has the uncanny ability of recognizing you from afar, on the street, in a ballroom, and then, with this clarion voice, calling out before you can even place where she is,” said Rob Wonderling, president and CEO of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce. “She is just absolutely illuminating, and her effervescent personality immediately will cause someone to want to interact with her, spend time with her, and be part of whatever she’s working on.”
The job of city representative is a sort of cheerleader-in-chief and city diplomat. Traditionally, the appointee fills in for the mayor when the chief executive cannot attend a public event. The city representative also looks for ways to showcase the city on the national and international stages. Hess said she hopes to also focus on neighborhoods and residents.
“I want to be the ear for people to come to as well. I want to be someone that people have a comfort level to share concerns, ideas, with,” she said. “I don’t know how many people know what the role of city rep is or who the city rep is, but I want to make sure they can find me.”
A graduate of Maria Goretti Catholic High School and Temple University, Hess went to a job fair shortly after college graduation and landed a human resources job at Independence Blue Cross. She has worked at IBC for 24 years and is now director of the IBC Foundation, the company’s philanthropic arm.
Hess was born with spina bifida and has no feeling in her lower legs. She wears braces and uses a wheelchair or crutches. Often, upon first meeting, people assume she suffered an accident.
“I’m always hearing, ‘Oh, no, what happened?’ And I’ll joke with them, ‘Oh, God did it,’ ” Hess said in her office at Blue Cross last week, a “Heart of Philadelphia” necklace dangling.
Regardless, it has never slowed her down.
When she was a child, her parents had to keep taking her back to CHOP because the metal braces the staff there had fitted her for would pop off.
“I was a city kid,” Hess said, shrugging. “I kept moving.”
Now she makes frequent stops at CVS to replace worn crutches.
When she started at Blue Cross, Hess would spend most of her weekends volunteering around Philadelphia. Coworkers took notice and asked if they could come along.
That gave her the idea for a corporate volunteering program, which she pitched to the CEO.
Now, years later, the “Blue Crew” is one of the largest corporate volunteer teams in the city, clocking 7,400 volunteer hours to date this year. Hess has since helped Peco structure its own volunteer program.
Hess is well-known in other ways. Her Twitter handle, “TheSheilaShow,” pays homage to a lifelong goal to host a TV show where she interviews Philadelphians. Her Twitter feed is also a play-by-play of what’s going on in Philadelphia on a given night.
But Hess is more than an in-the-know gala-goer, her boss, Stephen Fera, said.
“Everyone has great ideas, not everyone can execute great ideas, and, what’s more, she does that with people. There’s no one left in her wake,” he said.
Fera called Hess one of the most prolific networkers in the city.
“That didn’t come from going to a lot of places and giving 100 business cards out,” Fera said. “That came from investing herself in any number of organizations and people.”
Hess is on the board of Back on My Feet, a nonprofit dedicated to empowering the homeless through running, and Variety, a charity for children with physical and developmental disabilities.
On an ideal night off, she is getting dinner somewhere casual with her husband. They met through Blue Cross 11 years ago. Michael was a new hire. Sheila ran the orientation program.
It was a pretty dull briefing going over the company’s benefits, Michael Hess said, but Sheila refused to let her audience disengage. He remembered her four years later when he saw her at a bar and mustered the courage to walk over.
The two are a classic opposites-attract story. She’s the 5-foot-2 extrovert who never seems to slow down. He’s 6-5, works in IT, and is a man of far fewer words.
On their wedding day, Sheila left her crutches at home and wrapped white silk around a cane. When the couple were introduced at the reception, Mike was too eager to greet the crowd to walk in at her pace. He scooped her up and twirled her around the ballroom.
“Nothing really overwhelms her, ever,” Mike Hess said. “We don’t have children. We’re both workaholics. . . . We let each other do what we need to do. I’d never be like, ‘Just stop for a minute.’ She’s going to do what she’s going to do.”
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