The Betsy Newell Fund for Older Adults will be launched at a gala celebration on May 10 at the James Burden Mansion.
Betsy Newell remembers the man who didn’t speak. Formerly homeless, he had moved into a room at Capitol Hall, one of Goddard Riverside’s supportive housing residences.
"Several years ago I went to our annual meeting," she recalls in her office at the Park Children’s Day School on the Upper West Side. "Ten residents had written a musical with a professional director and they staged it for the Board meeting.
"One was the fellow who had never spoken. No one had heard his voice. But he had a major part in the play, and he spoke and performed beautifully. That just floored me."
It was a testament, she says, to "how a good program can change lives."
Newell grew up on the Upper East Side. Despite demanding professions, both her parents were active in volunteer work, and her mother was one of the original organizers of the Goddard Gaieties fundraisers.
"We could hardly ever have dinner on the dining room table because it was always covered with index cards and donation forms," she laughs.
She followed in their footsteps, becoming a volunteer at an early age. She was also deeply influenced by attending The Brearley School, which emphasized community involvement. By fifth grade, Newell and her classmates were volunteering at a nearby "day nursery." There she became fascinated with child development, an interest that shaped the rest of her life.
Throughout her years at Brearley she was involved with after school programs. Volunteering became a deeply satisfying passion.
As a young adult in the 1970s, she moved to the Upper West Side, where rapid development was displacing older residents. "Goddard was leading the community efforts to redress the situation, so I joined with other young people to support this cause by helping to organize the first Musical Evening fundraiser," she recalls. "One thing led to another and I joined the Board."
Newell worked with every area of the agency and went on to become President of the Board in 2011.
"We had asked Betsy to help out the Board and be president for a year," says former Executive Director Stephan Russo. "It grew into a wonderful six-year partnership. I loved working with Betsy. When I ran into obstacles, she was always right there doing what was best for the organization and the community."
Although she’s proud of all Goddard Riverside’s programs, she feels a special affinity for the older adult services: the Senior Center, NORC, Home Delivered Meals and Phelps House. She loves the diversity at Phelps House, whose residents hail from 29 countries, and the enjoyment Senior Center members take in activities there.
"Life when you’re older can be just as vibrant and fun as when you’re young Ð if not more so," she says. "I like to think we support that, and I want us to do it even more."
In addition to her many hours at Goddard Riverside, Newell has been active in other causes Ð including the Youth Counseling League, the Junior League, and the alumnae committees of the Brearley School, Smith College and Oxford University’s Bodleian Library.
"Betsy Newell has made tremendous contributions to Goddard Riverside and this city," says Goddard Riverside Executive Director Roderick Jones. "She has helped us create a better and stronger New York City for everyone."
Nonetheless, Newell says she was "embarrassed" when she was approached to lend her name to a fund.
"Everyone who works on the front line at Goddard Riverside, they’re the ones who should have something named after them," she explains. "Also, so many of my friends have done incredible volunteer work. I feel awkward when there are others more deserving."
She was persuaded, however, by the thought of a permanent resource to undergird our offerings for older adults. "I think the fund is wonderful and that’s why I agreed to it," she says. "I think the services are so important."
With support from the fund, those services will be helping older adults find their voices Ð and lead fulfilling lives Ð for decades to come.