Public Affairs, Communications & Sustainable Development

Community Partner Nominated for Nonprofit Leadership Award

June 03, 2014 at 10:00 AM

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Champion for the Community

Written by W. Michael Short, Managing Editor

On the corner of Wyoming and Marcellus Streets, in the economically challenged Near Westside of Syracuse, New York, you will find what many in the community have come to know as “the little white house of hope.”

It is here, in what was once the 9th poorest neighborhood in the United States, that you are likely to find Mary Alice Smothers.

While her official title is director of the Westside Family Resource Center, it is clear to anyone who has ever had the privilege of working with her, that Mary Alice has grown well beyond any particular job title to become a true pillar in the Central New York community.

Over her long career, Mary Alice has worked individually with hundreds of disadvantaged youth and has independently raised tens of thousands of dollars to develop and implement programs to enrich their lives and open their eyes to the possibility of growth and lifelong learning.

Paul Driscoll, Commissioner of the City of Syracuse Department of Neighborhood and Business Development, says that he first met Mary Alice during his time at Home HeadQuarters (HHQ), the nationally recognized non-profit housing developer.

At the time, HHQ had recently enveloped the local Weed and Seed program, explained Driscoll. The concept behind Weed and Seed was to combine neighborhood development with law enforcement activities and Mary Alice was the assistant director.

“Most of us in the housing side of HHQ were well versed in the latest urban planning techniques,” said Driscoll. “But few of us were facile in dealing with the people that live, work and play in the neighborhoods that we were working in. Except, of course, Mary Alice.”

Driscoll explained that while Mary Alice did not discount the theoretical efforts that were underway in her own and other challenged neighborhoods, she focused her time on introducing the team to the individuals and families that would actually be affected by these theoretical planning efforts.

“Not only did Mary Alice live in the neighborhood we were working in, it was obvious the social capital she commanded among adults and youth alike,” said Driscoll. “She would confront deadbeat property owners and shame them into maintaining their properties and was more effective than code enforcement or housing court could ever be.”

“And she had no problem confronting members of the Latin Kings, a notorious gang that kept many residents in fear,” Driscoll continued. “Mary Alice has a way with people… the small children growing up in a confusing and sometimes violent environment, young adults with few role models and diminished hopes, adult residents, the police, and politicians that would often feel uncomfortable in certain settings in certain neighborhoods – she is able to bridge the gap between communities and helps build trust and open dialogue.”

“Her example of speaking truth to power without alienating either side of the table is her greatest gift and an asset most leaders can only dream about. She’s an organizer that gets her own hands dirty,” said Driscoll. “She’s a leader that leads by her actions showing young and old alike how to effect change for themselves and their community.”

Kerry Quaglia, HHQ Executive Director, also met Mary Alice during her time with Weed and Seed and has worked with her in a number of other capacities over the years.

While she has been involved with many initiatives to promote better housing and reduce crime, it was always clear that her first priority is working with children, according to Quaglia.

“She believed that children needed choices, particularly those that did not have a supportive family life,” said Quaglia. “Mary Alice would work tirelessly to make sure that there were after-school safe havens and programming for the youth in the community. She firmly believes in the power of change and personal growth and will do anything in her power to help youth succeed in life."

Most noteworthy, according to Quaglia, is that Mary Alice is willing to ‘take on’ institutions, agencies, or school districts if they decided to balance their budgets by closing or limiting facilities or programming on the backs of children who needed help and enrichment.

“She would do so irrespective of the personal risk that folks may not want to work with her or that they would think she was a trouble-maker,” said Quaglia. “None of that mattered to her so long as the end result was benefiting the children. Being so truly driven in that respect is what I will always remember about working with Mary Alice.”

Putting this skill to good use, Mary Alice sits on the board of directors for the Near Westside Initiative, Inc., where she continues to play a central role in advocating for the community in the multi-million dollar efforts to transform the neighborhood in partnership with, instead of for, its residents.

“It’s about giving a hand up, not a hand out,” as Mary Alice would say.

Marilyn Higgins, Syracuse University Vice President of Community Engagement and Economic Development, remembers fondly the early days of the Near Westside Initiative and of meeting Mary Alice.

“Kathy Goldfarb-Findling smiled when she introduced me to Mary Alice. She told me that Mary Alice's passion for the neighborhood and particularly the children would ‘carry us through’ when times were tough. She was so right,” said Higgins. “Times were often tough in the beginning of the NWSI and it took time to build trust between the civic leaders, academics and residents. Mary Alice's willingness to speak up played a major role in building that trust and her willingness to launch a quip, timed perfectly to release the tension in any meeting.”

“Mary Alice has a capacity for friendship that rivals Kathy's. She reads people well and then draws them into her quest to give her "coyotes" the best life experiences that she can,” said Higgins. “When we were stuck on a problem, more than once we would decide to saunter over to the Little White House of Hope and pull up a couple of chairs next to Mary Alice. ‘What a great listener she is’ Kathy would say. Listening is an act of love and Mary Alice loves like no other.”

Perhaps it was their similar approach to leadership that led Mary Alice and Kathy Goldfarb-Findling to be such strong advocates for each other over the years. It is also for this reason that we, in honor of Kathy’s legacy and their shared and courageous leadership style, stand together in nominating our dear friend and colleague, Mary Alice Smothers, for this recognition.

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