Betsy Newell’s Keen Eye for How to Help - Manhattan Express | Manhattan Express

Betsy Newell’s Keen Eye for How to Help

Betsy Newell in her office at Park Children’s Day School, where she serves as director, with a young student there. | JACKSON CHEN

Betsy Newell in the library at Park Children’s Day School, where she serves as director, with a young student there. | JACKSON CHEN

BY JACKSON CHEN | In the early 1980s, the Goddard Riverside Community Center extended its mission by undertaking the management of single-room-occupancy residential buildings on the Upper West Side.

After spending the money available to renovate its first such complex, the organization furnished the units in bare-bones fashion, providing a bed, a chest of drawers, and a chair.

When Betsy Newell, a Goddard Riverside board member, accompanied a homeless woman in her 70s into one of the units, it was largely devoid of life or character. Newell recalls that the other woman didn’t speak a word to her.

The only clues to the voiceless woman’s past were found in a Bloomingdale’s shopping bag she carried, filled with original watercolor paintings of England’s grand stately homes. Newell investigated further and discovered that the woman had worked for Condé Nast after graduating from Smith College around the time of World War II. So Newell knew they shared the same alma mater, but she couldn’t track down much of anything about what happened next for the woman after she left her magazine job or how she had become homeless.

Newell’s primary concern at that moment, in any event, was making the SRO feel more like a home, even if the woman still treated her as a stranger. Newell decorated with curtains, a bedspread, a mirror, lamps, a rug she lugged up to the apartment, and one final gift she secured from a local arts supply store.

“The very last day that I saw her, I had gotten a… really lovely pad of watercolor paper, colors, and a little easel,” Newell said. “I brought them, and she sat there and didn’t say anything.”

But a couple of weeks later, Newell received a call from the social workers managing the building informing her that the woman had begun painting. Decades later, that is still something Newell points to as a significant part of her volunteer career.

Now 76 herself, Newell has spent the past six years as the president of Goddard Riverside’s board of directors. In tandem with that volunteer work, Newell continues to serve as director of Park Children’s Day School, a private pre-school, with 17 years — and counting — under her belt there. Her professional and volunteer work meshes smoothly — even if the time demands are considerable — as she attends Goddard Riverside’s board meetings in the mornings before school, as necessary, and her nights are divided between events with the non-profit and the school.

Betsy Newell has served on the Goddard Riverside board for four decades. | JACKSON CHEN

Betsy Newell has served on the Goddard Riverside board for four decades. | JACKSON CHEN

According to Goddard Riverside’s former executive director Stephan Russo, the organization originally sought Newell’s commitment to spend a year as board president.

“It grew into a wonderful six-year partnership,” Russo said in a statement. “I loved working with Betsy. When I ran into obstacles, she was always right there by my side doing what was best for the organization and the community we serve.”

Looking back on her years with Goddard Riverside, Newell recalled that her volunteer work there dates back to when she was a young woman running the Goddard Gaieties, a dance program for elementary school kids. She said the Gaieties’ admission policy contrasted with other, more exclusive local dance programs that required subscriptions or reference letters, while Goddard Riverside’s dances were inclusive and welcomed everybody.

After running the dances for a number of years, Newell was recruited onto the board of directors, where she has served for more than 40 years. In those decades, Newell has played a part in a wide variety of the programs the organization undertakes, from senior citizen activities to helping homeless people stabilize their lives.

“I’m no expert, but I think so often people who’ve lived on the streets have no social life,” Newell said of her experiences with homeless New Yorkers who have come into Goddard Riverside’s programs. “It’s so lonely and they get inward-looking and they’ve been knocked around by society.”

As a part of the services they provide to the organization, its board members meet with formerly homeless clients annually to explore their backgrounds and the progress they are making. What never fails to impress Newell, she said, was the clients articulating the importance of having a house or apartment key — as a tangible representation of a home.

“Everybody always mentions a key,” Newell said, miming the holding up of a key between her thumb and index finger. “Because they haven’t had a key to anything for their years of being on the street.”

By Newell’s account, having a place to call home really did boost the wellbeing of many, including a man she readily recalls details about. With the help of a Broadway director, Goddard Riverside clients joined together to write a musical about the trials of being homeless. For Newell, the star of the show was a husky performer who easily filled out his bright white suit and belted out his lines with confidence.

“One fellow no one ever had heard speak, he’d been living in the building for five years,” Newell said of the man. “He both spoke and sang in this production for the first time.”

Despite being present for rehearsals as a cast member, Newell said, he still did not speak until the performance itself. The director, the Goddard staff, and the other cast members all took the man’s sudden turnaround as a miracle of sorts.

“That affected me deeply, actually,” Newell said. “As did the woman that had an upbringing that was so similar to mine — that that’s what happens to people.”

As Newell faces terms limits after six years heading the board, she said she is getting ready to step down. To commemorate her work over the past six years, the non-profit organization is launching the Betsy Newell Older Adult Fund to Support Positive Aging in Manhattan on May 10.

The fund is aimed at improving the services the group can offer the elderly, including hiring a bus for more outings and dedicating a staff member to assist them in navigating the world of Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and other benefit programs.

“I certainly have begun to understand some of the hurdles that us older folk encounter every day,” Newell said, not shy about acknowledging her own age. Still, she remains mindful of the motivation that prompted her to begin volunteering her time and energies with Goddard Riverside four decades ago .

“When the Upper West Side was being gentrified, a lot of people who lived in those tenement buildings were dispossessed,” Newell recalled. “A lot of them were elderly people who had no place to go, who didn’t have family. That’s what got me started when I was a young woman, the idea that these people really had no place to go and they were elderly.”

4 Responses to Betsy Newell’s Keen Eye for How to Help

  1. Nikita629 May 8, 2017 at 8:31 am

    Thanks, it is very informative to me.

    Reply
  2. ERP_Tom May 22, 2017 at 9:40 am

    Betsy's education may protect her from elderly drug abuse when she gets older.

    Reply
  3. site July 8, 2017 at 12:19 pm

    To commemorate her work over the past six years, she finally writes a great story.

    Reply
  4. rushmyessays September 13, 2017 at 3:05 am

    Giving such attention to the kids is the meaning that they are going to perform better than every other student. This system should be at every place where students are getting education.

    Reply

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