Outgoing RSS director reflects on a decade of work


Julia Schwartz-Leeper found her way to Riverdale all thanks to a phone call.

It was 2006, and Schwartz-Leeper was just finishing a run as interim executive director for the Carver Center, a community center in Port Chester, and wanted to take a breather. But the opportunity to lead Riverdale Senior Services came ringing, she had no other choice but to pick it up.

“A friend called me and said, ‘I have the perfect job for you,’” Schwartz-Leeper said. “It seemed like a good fit, and I’ve been here ever since.”

That ever since ended up being 12 years, and now Schwartz-Leeper is wrapping up that tenure where she spent time overseeing the facility’s day-to-day operations and programs.

When she first arrived at 2600 Netherland Ave., Schwartz-Leeper knew this was where she needed to be.

“It was a vibrant senior program with that mission that I hold dear to my heart, which is to help older adults to remain independent and part of life in their own homes,” she said. 

Like any executive director at a nonprofit, Schwartz-Leeper has had her share of challenges when it comes to fundraising and supporting her staff.

“I think the thing I love about (this job) is the diversity of opportunities,” she said. “And the challenges are that diversity as well.”

Challenges aside, Schwartz-Leeper and her RSS team expanded the center’s adult day program. It launched in 2000, providing older adults with memory loss an opportunity to socialize and stay active with a variety of fitness and arts programs, ranging from yoga to sculpture classes. 

“I think having a social environment that they can participate in, and in a supportive program, is really important,” Schwartz-Leeper said. “Even if they’re fortunate to have paid caregivers at home, I think the risk of neglect or just deterioration, abuse for somebody who is homebound, or with just one caregiver all the time, is enormous.”

It’s also vital for caregivers, whether they’re a paid aide or a family member, to take a break.

Schwartz-Leeper also improved the facility’s health care program by bringing on a nurse to provide wellness education and navigate members through the complexities of the country’s health care system.

And over the last 12 years, Schwartz-Leeper developed a relationship with Mosaic Mental Health, formerly known as Riverdale Mental Health Clinic, which ultimately opened a satellite clinic at Netherland Avenue.

“We had found that older adults are prescribed antidepressants, or anti-anxiety medication by their regular physicians,” Schwartz-Leeper said, “but they’re not as carefully monitored.”

Another initiative undertaken by Schwartz-Leeper provided older women a space to discuss health care that was relevant to them. It all began when she sat down with state Sen. Jeffrey Klein, who then allocated money to RSS for the initiative. 

“We talked together about how older women are often left out of women’s health, and that 75 percent or so of the clients we serve are women,” Schwartz-Leeper said. “That was a need.” 

From there, a support group was assembled asking women what they needed.

Schwartz-Leeper has had many memorable moments since the start of her tenure at Riverdale Senior Services, but one forefront in her mind is from this past Thursday when a woman at the center told Schwartz-Leeper how much she’d miss her. 

“She said, ‘I came here as a broken person, and all of your personal warmth and all of the programs here have just changed my life,’” Schwartz-Leeper said. “And I thought, ‘Well this is what we’re about.’

“Everyone comes here with a need, whether it’s a social need, or an emotional need, or a financial need.”

Looking back on how much has changed over the years, Schwartz-Leeper thinks there’s a significant difference in the way older adults communicate their needs to senior centers like RSS.

“I think people are more sophisticated in their needs,” she said. “Maybe people have always been this way, but I think that we’ve done a better job of identifying this.”

And the members have taught Schwartz-Leeper more than just how to ensure older adults maintain their independence. They’ve taught her the power of positive thinking. 

“Having a positive attitude doesn’t have anything to do with how difficult your life is,” she said. “It has to do with what you bring to it. And there are people here who (I’ve) known for years, and I know the tragedies in their lives, and the struggles in their lives — but they have a smile on their face.”

So what’s next for Schwartz-Leeper? She’s starting a foundation for Visiting Nurse Services in Westchester, an organization that allows patients — young or old — live comfortably in their own home. 

Schwartz-Leeper plans to bring the organizational, relationship building, and fundraising skills she’s learned from Riverdale Senior Services to help the organization do things “outside of its normal realm,” like helping those with no insurance, or expanding its creative programs.

While Schwartz-Leeper will no longer be part of the center’s team, she hopes RSS will continue developing relationships with other community-based organizations and listen to the needs of its members.

“We find a lot of older adults come here and need a sense of purpose,” Schwartz-Leeper said. 

“They don’t want to come and just have services given to them. They want to feel like they’re part of a community, and that’s really what we’re trying to develop.”