PLATTSBURGH - In her role as executive director of the Seniors Citizens Council of Clinton County, Kathleen Hazel has made it her life's work to provide opportunities for the elderly of the region. Now, after more than 17 years of service to the aging population, she has retired from her position.
Hazel's last day as executive director was Dec. 23, which was a closing of a chapter in her life she found to be very bittersweet.
"The day I left, I had a hard time going out to the dining room to say goodbye [to the seniors], because they're just so special," she said.
Hazel has maintained the title of executive director since August 1991. The length of service to the council has been her longest run of employment with any organization, she said, as she always felt a need to move on after a certain amount of time with other jobs.
"I was looking for something that was more challenging and had a lot of different facets to it," Hazel said of her accepting the position with the council. "I'm not a person who can sit at a desk all day. I need something that's more exciting. So, when the opportunity came along, I decided to try for the job and I got it."
When she came on board, the council was facing economic strains, personnel issues and lackluster programs and services to offer senior citizens in the county. Through the strong partnership formed between Hazel and the council's board of directors, the organization began to improve, taking on more challenges to raise money for its coffers and provide increased opportunities for those who utilized the council's senior center on North Catherine Street.
"We wanted to offer more than just bingo and a place to socialize," said Hazel. "We brought more opportunities in and as we were able to, like a book club, art class and French class. It grew the amount of people who were coming in to the facility and we all worked together as a team and that was really important. It made the place blossom."
The new programs and services meant the world to the seniors who took advantage of them, said Hazel. It gave them a chance to experience new things and, in some cases, find a new lease on life, she said.
"One of my biggest joys has been being able to see the happiness and success stories of the folks who use our services," said Hazel. "We have many people who have come to us who were lonely and looking for opportunities and many of them now have become these stellar volunteers who just really make the programs work. "
In the past 17 years, there have been several other milestones for the council, said Hazel. In 1995, the organization gained much positive attention when Hazel was appointed to the White House Conference on Aging by Congressman John M. McHugh, R-Pierrepont Manor. Being invited to participate in the conference, which meets once every 10 years to makes policy recommendations regarding the aged to the President and Congress, was an outstanding honor, she said. That and other collaboratives gave her the opportunity to share knowledge from other parts of the country with her colleagues back home.
"I think being able to go outside the community and meet with other people who are doing the same kinds of jobs has been a great way to learn other things that are going on across the United States," said Hazel. "We've been able to be creative and do some really wonderful things."
The establishment of a formal computer lab, with an award-winning program overseen by Edward and Jean Schiffler of Peru, has also been a remarkable moment in the council's history, said Hazel. In the program's infancy, participants met in the dining room of a place on Elm Street with a single computer. It has since grown to offer approximately 30 computers for public use, teaching seniors about the Internet, typing and other ways to use the machines.
Programs such as that would be impossible without the dedication of volunteers like the Schifflers and the council's board of directors, Hazel said. The board's diversity - being comprised of retired school teachers, lawyers, doctors, bankers and members of the medical field - provides ideas from several different angles, which ultimately helps the council and the elderly, she said.
"It's amazing that every person's talent brings something else and makes for a stronger base," she said. "It would be a very big loss to our community without the center because we see so many people. If those people couldn't be engaged socially, learning new things, it would mean more loneliness, depression and isolation. There would be a void that this center has worked tremendously well to fill."
The role of executive director has now been assumed by Plattsburgh resident Maria Alexander, who comes to the council with more than 20 years experience in nonprofit work, said Hazel. Alexander served for several years as the director of the Big Buddy and Senior Outreach programs at the Joint Council for Economic Opportunity of Clinton and Franklin Counties, where Hazel's husband, Gordon J., retired earlier this year as that organization's executive director.
"She knows a lot of the seniors and is very outgoing," Hazel said of Alexander. "She knows the agencies and all the different people in them, so it's been a great transition."
Hazel will now enjoy retirement with her husband, with the two planning to spend time in Myrtle Beach, S.C., in the coming weeks.
"We've got a pile of books on a chair here that we plan to catch up on," she laughed.
Upon their return to the North Country, both anticipate becoming involved with volunteer work and doing whatever else they can to help organizations like their former employers.
"Once we get back in town, we'll hit the ground running, I'm sure," she said