Jennifer Cairns
Jennifer Cairns

In 2013, Jennifer Cairns became the first female executive director of the Sarah Heinz House. Passionate about youth advocacy, she’s committed to advancing quality of life in the Pittsburgh region — especially for women and children.

A community and civic leader and a dedicated volunteer and mentor, Cairns received the first Athena Young Professional Award and is a former litigation partner at McGuireWoods. She grew up in Donora and lives with her family in Gibsonia.

What upcoming events are you excited to attend?

My family and I are looking forward to attending every fall festival we can squeeze in. I am also excited about making our annual family trip to Ohiopyle to take photos amidst the colorful leaves.

Most importantly, I am looking forward to celebrating my brother’s milestone birthday in NYC and my wedding anniversary with the love of my life later this month.

What is the best part of your job?

The kids! There’s nothing better than watching one of our members conquer a fear or tap into an unknown talent. It’s also joyful to see youth from so many different neighborhoods, backgrounds and life circumstances build tight bonds, share laughter and productively work alongside one another.

Jennifer Cairns sharing Sarah Heinz House’s impact on local youth at last year’s sold-out fundraising dinner.

What is your big idea for Pittsburgh?

Form a public, private and nonprofit partnership around transportation so that all local children may be engaged in quality out-of-school time programs that meet their individual needs.

How does it feel to be the first female executive director of the Sarah Heinz House?

I am proud to serve as the first female executive director of the Sarah Heinz House. The Board made a bold decision to hire an untraditional candidate who was eight months pregnant at the time, and I acted equally as boldly in walking away from a stable and successful legal career to follow a life calling. Both of us saw risk, but we chose to focus instead on the high reward that stood to be gained. This shared mindset has propelled Sarah Heinz House forward and we continue to expand our reach and impact. Last year alone, we proudly served over 1,200 youth from 108 different zip codes in the Pittsburgh area.

What is one thing you hope to accomplish in this role?

My answer is no different than what I’ve set out to accomplish in every role I’ve held: leave the place better than you found it. At Sarah Heinz House, this translates into taking ownership of our role in making Pittsburgh the most livable city for all children by eliminating barriers to participation, building strong partnerships and being humble enough to get out of another leader’s/organization’s way when necessary.

What is the one thing that would surprise Pittsburghers most about you?

Due to my small stature, people are most surprised to learn that I played eight seasons as a starting defensive back for the Pittsburgh Passion women’s full-contact football team. I always respond that it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog that matters. On the inside, I’m 6’0”, 200 pounds!

Jennifer Cairns and her family at Ohiopyle.

It’s time to unwind. Where do you head?

I head outdoors. Hiking, biking, swimming or rollerblading are all things I enjoy doing alone or with friends and family. Of course, the beach is my true happy place.

What book would you highly recommend?

The Energy Bus by Jon Gordon. It’s an easy, yet impactful read.

What’s been bugging you lately?

That nonprofits are still be measured by their overhead costs as opposed to their impact and value to the community. To do more with less scarcity mindset will never result in solving root causes.

In Pittsburgh, I can’t live without:

Sarris chocolate-covered pretzels! It’s a serious addiction.

Where will we find you this Saturday night?

I will be at our WhoDunnit? Night of Mystery Dinner having fun, getting into a bit of mischief and raising vital funds to support our pre-K through 12th-grade after-school programs (read more about the event here).

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Jennifer has worked at the Mattress Factory, Brooklyn Museum of Art and Dahesh Museum of Art and is co-author of Pittsburgh Signs Project: 250 Signs of Western Pennsylvania. She also is co-coordinator of Handmade Arcade. Musically, she is in a band called The Garment District and is a founding member of Brooklyn's The Ladybug Transistor.