Jessica (Bastianelli) Pilcher: United Way director driven by desire to help people

Photo by Olivia Ross / Jessica Bastianelli is the Director of Community Programs at United Way of Greater Chattanooga.

Jessica (Bastianelli) Pilcher is a classic striver.

At 26 years old, she has reached the rank of director at United Way of Greater Chattanooga, where she leads a staff of 20 in the agency's community programs department.

Beyond that, Pilcher, who grew up near Maryville, Tennessee, is coming off a whirlwind year in which she changed jobs, got married, bought a house and started working on her doctorate. She met her husband, Michael Pilcher through an online dating app just before the pandemic hit and they were married in early March.

Pilcher traces her interest in a nonprofit career to an epiphany she had in high school after going on a mission trip to Haiti.

"Seeing firsthand this little kid be so happy for a plate of rice, it opened my eyes to the fact that there is so much going on that isn't being addressed, locally and internationally," she says. "I came back and said, 'I'm going to change the world someday.'"

Pilcher grew up on a farm in Monroe County, Tennessee, where she learned responsibility by taking care of some of her family's 35 horses. "I was taught that if I didn't feed them they weren't going to eat," she says.

Pilcher says her North Star as a young adult is the quote: "You don't have to do everything, but you can do something."

After high school, Pilcher decided to follow her older brother's path to attend the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where she majored in political science as an undergraduate and later got her master's degree in public administration. She's now working on a doctorate in organizational leadership through Concordia University.

photo Photo by Olivia Ross / Jessica Bastianelli is the Director of Community Programs at United Way of Greater Chattanooga.

Before she even graduated from college, she began working full time at the Children's Advocacy Center here. Her job was training children and adults how to prevent child abuse.

"That ended up being something I really loved," Pilcher says. "The sweet thing about that was that I got to teach my kids how to protect themselves."

After finishing her master's degree, she applied for a job at the United Way where she was hired as a relationship manager, a fund-raising position. Then, three months ago, she was promoted to her current position as director of community programs where she oversees United Way's 2-1-1 information and referral service. Last year the 2-1-1 service paired 50,000 callers with 1,000 sources of help in the metro Chattanooga area.

"One of my favorite parts of this job is that we get to help people with needs, like food and child care," she says. "It's like, today a prayer was answered just by answering a phone call."

Jessica (Bastianelli) Pilcher

* Job: Director of Community Programs, United Way of Greater Chattanooga* Age: 26* Education: University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, master’s of public administration* Family: Husband, Michael Pilcher

Pilcher also heads up United Way's emergency services funds, including the Neediest Cases Fund, a longtime partnership with the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Her department also administers Restore Hope, a COVID-19 federal relief grant.

Meanwhile, Pilcher says she feels like Chattanooga is a good fit for her life stage and career aspirations.

"I know there is good work to be done here, but I can also have fun here," she says. " Other than heaven there's no place I'd rather be than Chattanooga, Tennessee."