Executive Director, Senior Citizens Council of Clinton County
Hometown: Lowville, NY
Family: Husband, Ray Alexander
Education: B.A. in Child and Family Services from SUNY Plattsburgh
Board memberships with JCEO, the North Country Association for the Visually Impaired and the Samuel F. Vilas Home; President elect of Plattsburgh Noon Rotary, Girl Scouts Women of Distinction committee
As a child, Maria Alexander spent summers on Lake Champlain with her parents and grandparents, who have roots in Keeseville. She chose SUNY Plattsburgh to pursue her college degree, and has been serving residents of the North Country in helping roles ever since. Alexander got her start in the world of non-profit agencies as a college intern with JCEO’s Headstart program, working with at-risk youth and their families. As she neared graduation a permanent position opened up at Headstart, where she dug in her heels and grew up professionally. During her 20-year tenure at JCEO, Alexander worked her way up through the ranks. She transitioned from working with youth to working with seniors, eventually taking the helm of JCEO’s Senior Outreach program and Big Buddy Program.
The pending retirement of former Senior Citizens Council Executive Director Kathleen Hazel in 2008 presented a new opportunity for Alexander, who has a passion for lifelong learning and growth. “It has always been important for me to better myself, grow and take on more responsibility,” she explained.
Alexander was successful in her bid for the leadership position and assumed her current role as Executive Director during a key time of transition for the agency. At that time, construction on the $8.5M Catherine Gardens renovation and housing project was still in the planning stages. She spent her first year on the job immersed in the new world of tax credit housing application documents and construction planning. The results speak for themselves. Today, phase one and two of the Catherine Gardens project are complete, resulting in the addition of six new affordable housing townhouses and 19 units in the main building.
Following are excerpts from SB’s interview with Maria Alexander.
SB: Who was your most influential mentor?
MA: I have had several mentors in my life. The first was my father. I was the youngest child in my family, and the only girl. My father was a businessman, and early on in my career he taught me about life and how to be successful.
As for my most influential mentor, I’d have to give that to Bruce Garcia, who was the Deputy Director at JCEO. He helped me to become a better manager, and a much better leader. He taught me how to speak in public and stressed that you always need to be prepared. He said, “To be in your position, it is not necessary to be liked.” That was hard for me to overcome. I think everybody likes to be liked, but because of him I also have the ability to move past that and do what needs to be done. I learned a lot in 20 years at that agency.
SB: What advice would you offer to someone starting his or her business career?
MA: Be patient. You have to start at the bottom and work your way up. Sometimes you have to swallow your pride. I think a lot of the younger generation expects to walk out of school and right into that high-end job. You may not always get the raise or the promotion you want right away — you have to earn it. I tell my interns that there are not a lot of jobs working with this population in the North Country right now, but that they should put their foot in the door somewhere and stick it out. A lot of us that work with the senior population locally have been around for a long time, and we are going to retire someday. We need more people involved with serving the aging population. It is going to become such a huge population, and there will be a lot of jobs available. I hope they are going to be as passionate about this work as we are.
SB: What are you most proud of professionally?
MA: Growing this program. When I started here, this place was kind of quiet after 12:30 p.m. Today we have to fight to find times and days to add new programs. We have had a lot of growth in the past few years and I am very happy with that. A lot of people still think that this is a place where people just sit around and have coffee and gossip. It is really not that. Our senior center is really active physically, focused on wellness, especially with the addition of pickleball.
SB: Can you explain pickleball for our readers who aren’t familiar with the game?
MA: It is a huge craze in Plattsburgh right now. My husband began researching pickleball for me after a conversation I had with Adore Kurtz. We knew this could be successful if we could get it off the ground.
Pickleball is a game that is a cross between badminton, tennis and ping pong. You use a paddle about the size of a racquet ball paddle and a ball that looks like a wiffle ball. It is fast paced but not a lot of movement like tennis, so it is easier on your knees and less chance of falling. It has become a whole culture. Pickleball. Once you start, you get hooked.
SB: How has your work with the senior population impacted your view of your own retirement?
MA: It has made me more physically active, and made me focus more on my health and well-being. A lot of the collaborative efforts I have been working on lately have been about fitness and getting people moving.
Working here has also made me think about my home — really looking at it to see if it is okay to retire in if I want to stay there long term. I think about things like: Do I need tub bars? Where is the laundry located? Are the stairs going to be a problem? It doesn’t matter how old you are, you have to start thinking about these things now if you want to stay in your home as you age.
SB: What do you believe are some of the biggest misconceptions that people have about the senior population?
MA: People think when you get old, you sit in your house all day, you can’t hear anything and you drive slowly. They are wrong. We have 80-year olds upstairs playing pickleball. Seniors or older, active adults, as we like to call them, are just people who no longer work at a job. Now they are retired and enjoying life. They are vibrant, healthy and active. Most people don’t realize that we couldn’t do a lot of the things that we do here if we did not have them. As volunteers, they are a vital part of organizations in this community. They are volunteering at the hospital and soup kitchens and food pantries. They like to learn, and they can teach us a whole lot.
SB: What is something no one would guess about you?
MA: I have a secret passion. I love to ice skate. I always wanted to be a professional figure skater. In the wintertime, I would walk down to the local ice skating rink after dinner and skate every day.
I don’t think many people know that I once worked at the lunch counter at Woolworth’s in Plattsburgh. I wore the little white waitress outfit that they made you wear. I was a college student and I couldn’t cook back then, but somehow I managed to do it there. I met a lot of fun people that way.
SB: What do you do in your free time?
MA: I love to be outside in the summer time. I love to sit outside by my pool and read. I enjoy spending time with my stepson, his wife and my grandbaby. I like to spend time with my friends. I have some pretty special friends, some all the way back from high school.
I adore my dogs. When I met my husband, after our first date we went for coffee and then stopped at his house to let his dog out. I fell in love with his Bernese Mountain dog the first time I saw her. I love their markings and personality. They are sweet and gentle and they love kids. They are a good sized dog, but you have to love dog hair, because they shed. We have always had one or two dogs, and we currently have Ripley, who is our fifth Bernese.
SB: What inspires you?
MA: Success inspires me. My seniors inspire me. My husband inspires me too. He is my biggest supporter. It inspires me when I can share my passion for this population with my interns. My staff inspires me when they come in and are excited about any project.