A community’s beacon

| 15 Nov 2016 | 11:05

When asked about his role as executive director of Goddard Community Center, Stephan Russo said, “It requires a lot of different skills and relationship building with everybody from a senior in the senior program to somebody who used to live on the streets, to dealing with the board members who live on Central Park West.”

The New York native landed a job at Goddard, an Upper West Side resource that serves 17,000 people each year through 26 programs, in 1976. He was 25 years old. He has spent 40 years there working on outreach in the form of such initiatives as daycare centers, housing for the homeless and programs for seniors. Nearly 20 of those years were spent as its executive director, a role that allows him to “walk into a program and see what impact it has and the joy on people’s faces.”

With the holidays approaching, Goddard is preparing for the organization’s holiday meals program, which serves 1,000 people each on Thanksgiving and Christmas days. Volunteers assist with everything from carving turkeys to baking pies to delivering meals to the homebound.

You started at Goddard after serving in the Peace Corps in Colombia.I worked in a youth program down there in Colombia, so I came back to the city looking to do community and youth work. And somebody, somewhat serendipitously, told me that Goddard Riverside Community Center was hiring because they had gotten a grant to run, what was called in that era, a delinquency prevention program. When I tell people the story, I always say, “No way are they going to hire this white middle class kid who came into the West Side of Manhattan to work.” By lo and behold, I got hired and that’s how I got started. Those first years we had developed a youth project where we did outreach and went out to the streets to get to know young people who were everywhere from 87th Street up to 93rd, in parks and playgrounds, a lot of kids who lived in the housing projects here on the West Side ... talking to young people and trying to get them involved in activities and programs. Some of the kids had dropped out of school and gotten into trouble. We targeted those kids who had gotten into trouble and we developed relationships and in many ways changed their lives.

What does your job as executive director entail?One of the absolute challenges as well as joys of being executive director is the diversity of what I have to do. One day I will go to a foundation to raise money for a fund. Often, I will go out and visit programs and meet with staff. I tend to go to meetings with city government officials around contracts. I do a lot of work with the board of directors. One of the interesting things about it, and people don’t realize this, is that I have the opportunity to lead and have a vision, but as executive director you’re not as powerful as sometimes people make you out to be. You’re really interdependent and I like that. And I really enjoy the challenges of how one builds change, particularly across staff, program participants, board members and community members.

Tell us about some of your program offerings and who takes advantage of them.What I like to say is that Goddard Riverside is a venerable settlement house with the merger of Goddard Neighborhood Center and Riverside Community Center back in 1959. Settlement houses are places in neighborhoods that are multiservice, meaning they work across generations. So at Goddard, we have programs from cradle to grave, active afterschool program for children; we work with teens out of a beacon program on 93rd Street. We have a nationally recognized college access program called Options, for first-generation kids, many of whom have to overcome a number of different obstacles, some academic, some financial. We help them get into college and make sure they’re successful because we follow up and see the kids through to graduation. We have a very active senior center. We feed a lot of seniors. We deliver 500 home-delivered meals in this Community Board 7.

Goddard has become recognized nationally for its work with homelessness. We do a lot of work with folks on the street. We’re the lead agency in a program called Manhattan Outreach Consortium, which has outreach workers that go out to where homeless people are out in the streets and we get people into housing. We have a consortium of three agencies that covers the entire borough of Manhattan. We develop a lot of permanent housing — five residences with close to 600 units. One building is primarily for low-income seniors and our other residences, called Supportive Housing, are for people are on the streets. We know, from our own experience, the answer to homelessness is permanent housing. People can live indoors with services and help, and become part of the community.

What’s an initiative you’ve put into place that you’re most proud of?I tend not to prioritize because I don’t want to necessarily answer the question, “What’s more important?” Creating quality early childhood education for a working family so their three-year-old can be in a safe place so they can work, or getting somebody off the street into permanent housing, or providing meals for seniors. I’m proud of the whole entity; the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. But if you really press me…One of the things that I am very proud of is Goddard Riverside Community Center has taken over and merged with two smaller community centers over my two decades as director.

Tell us about the community agencies you merged with over the years. In 2006, there was a very small community agency that ran out of the church St. Matthew and St. Timothy’s Neighborhood Center, which is on 84th Street. Some of these smaller agencies have real problems in raising money and keeping their programs going. So 10 years ago their board came to us and we actually merged with them, which really meant we were able to save daycare and afterschool programs and a really wonderful educational program called the Star Learning Center. And also that was the agency that did the home-delivered meals, so we were able to save that as well. More recently, there’s a community center down on 65th called Lincoln Square Neighborhood Center and it has a daycare program, a senior center, a teen center. ... It’s a very longstanding community center and very important to that neighborhood. And they were also having some problems and came to us and are now part of Goddard Community Center as well.

For more information about Goddard and its programs, visit www.goddard.org