The rewards of serving others

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Betsy Newell, the outgoing board president of Goddard Riverside Community Center, will have a fund named in her honor


  • Photo: Michele Kestenholz

  • Photo: Jenny Pfister 

Betsy Newell has seen Goddard Riverside Community Center grow into a coveted city resource. “I just have such a history with Goddard and remember when it was a very small settlement house with a budget of $5 million, which seemed huge. Now we have a budget of $35 million.” The Upper West Side haven, with outposts throughout Manhattan, cares for a vastly diverse group of New Yorkers, with 26 programs such as afterschool tutoring for children, meal delivery for the elderly and outreach for the homeless.

Serving on its board since she’s been in her early 30s, Newell, now 76, is stepping down from her role as board president, a post she’s held since 2011. For her unwavering commitment to the organization, the Betsy Newell Older Adult Fund, which will launch on May 10, has been created in her honor.

Growing up on the Upper East Side, Newell learned of the importance of helping others at an early age. Not only were her parents strong proponents of volunteering, but the school she attended, The Brearley School, fostered her motivation to give back as well.

Having always worked with children, Newell, who is director of Park Children’s Day School, has been asked, “How come they’re naming a fund for older adults after you?” Her answer is, “I really appreciate, from a historical point of view, the continuity that older people bring to the community. But I also see, in my own schools at Grandparents’ Day, what older adults give to the next generation or next two generations.”

How did it come about that you joined the board at Goddard?

I was living on Riverside Drive and 88th and had a group of friends that did things for charity. One of the members married a Russian pianist and Goddard had the idea that it would be fun to have a house concert. So I was very active in organizing that concert. One thing led to another, and I got involved and served on other committees and was on the board by my early 30s, I would say. And I’m 76, so that’s a long time ago.

What are some initiatives you’ve worked on there that you’re most proud of?

We have had two mergers with other organizations that are terrific, but they were having some difficulty keeping going. Before I became president, I was very active with the first one. It was a very small community center, but they did wonderful work, especially with afterschool tutoring. It was in a church community center on 84th, St. Matthew and St. Timothy’s. We were able to get early childhood programs and something called Star Learning, which is the tutoring program. We’re just in the process of completing the merger with Lincoln Square Community Center. That’s just behind Lincoln Center and has its own community center and some fabulous programs, including one for the elderly, which is just wonderful. I suppose those two things were the most satisfying.

Tell us why you were shy to have the fund named after you at first.

I’m not being modest, but I honestly feel that it’s the people on the front line who are actually doing the work, presenting the activities and programs, after whom the fund should be named. Also, in my circle of friends who are my age, they’re all deeply involved in charitable organizations. And I just felt embarrassed to have somebody make a fuss over this.

You learned about charitable work through your parents, but also at school.

When I was a fifth grader at The Brearley School, we had a chance, a couple of times a week, to volunteer at a day nursery. Now, you never hear that word anymore, but in the 30s, 40s and 50s, day nurseries were what we would now call daycare. We went to one in the neighborhood, on the Upper East Side. I really loved it. They were little, infants to five. As we got older, I did a lot of volunteering at one of the local public schools in their afterschool program. And it was just very satisfying. I think we all felt that way. There was just a real commitment at the school, a sense that you had a responsibility and had to figure out a way to give back.

As director, how much interaction do you have with the children of Park Children’s Day School?

Oh, lots. I mean, we only have about 115 children, so I know them all. I know their parents. One of the great joys of my job is getting to know really interesting and intelligent families. For many of them, it’s their first school experience, so I like to send them off with a very positive attitude.

Do you have any funny stories involving a student?

It’s funny, I just told this story this morning to a set of parents whose younger child is with us. The older son is in first grade now. He’s graduated. And he came back because his school had a day off when we were in session. Our alums come back and spend the day in their old classrooms. So he came back and came up to say hello to all of us in the office. And he threw his arms around me and gave me a big hug and said, “And what was your name again?” [Laughs]

Tell us a memorable story about your work with Goddard.

After I had been on the board for maybe 10 years, we took over our first single-room occupancy building. And we started to work on turning it into a place for the homeless. And the board was asked if we wanted to help to furnish a room. So I was assigned to a room for a woman who, it turned out, went to Smith College where I had gone. She was there during the war years, hired by Conde Nast, sent to England to do watercolors and report on country houses after the war. And here she was, how many years later, on the streets for 17 years. And she didn’t talk, so she never talked to me. But she had her original drawings that had been in the magazine. So I made curtains and bedspreads and all of that to try to make the room attractive. And on the last day of this event, I got a local art store to give me some decent watercolor supplies and got a little easel. Then I was told, a couple of months later by the staff in the building, that she actually had started painting again. And the whole experience of being in the room with her and having her sit and just watch me with her rolled-up paintings in an old Bloomingdale’s bag between her legs, the only precious thing she had and had kept for 17 years on the streets, was just an amazing experience for me.

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