Merriette Pollard, 71

Former director recognized for her work at Dunbar Center, a nonprofit in Syracuse

By Mary Beth Roach

Q: You were recently honored as one of the Onondaga County Serving Seniors Honorees, nominated by two neighborhood advisers from the Dunbar Center. What does that mean to you?

A: It means an awful lot. Dunbar is dear to my heart. I don’t do the work for the awards, but I appreciate the fact that Dunbar recognized what I did when I was here before and what I’ve done since I’ve been back working with them [as a volunteer].

Q: You worked for Dunbar as executive director for four years. What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment?

A: My biggest accomplishment was being able to develop programming that provided comprehensive services for the agency; to be able to renovate the facility; to start a capital campaign. I think, most of all, my special programs that I liked were the adoption and foster care and the senior services.

Q: You’ve returned as a volunteer, and your focus is on senior programming. What does some of that programming consist of?

A: Senior programming is really built around the neighborhood advisory concept. They access the services. There’s also socialization that goes on for the seniors. And I think, in a way, my serving seniors is more indirect because, in my role, what I did was to access some money and to do fundraising and to help develop a plan to keep the doors open. I know if we were to close, then the seniors would not have been able to have the services that they needed, and I wanted to see them have a program that would be a quality program.

Q: You’re still volunteering?

A: I still volunteer as a consultant to the board and to the executive director.

Q: You have done a lot of work in the field of gerontology. How did you get involved in this field? Was there an inspiration for you to enter this field of study?

A: Throughout my life, I’ve always liked working with seniors. They used to tell me I was an old soul in a young body growing up because I loved the wisdom of older people. I got into the senior services as an aside. When I was working at Grambling State University (in Grambling, La.), there was a grant for a friendly visitor program. I helped write the grant, and we paired high school and college students to be able to go in the home and visit with seniors, especially homebound, isolated seniors. They would talk to them, write letters, just to provide that socialization piece. I don’t think people realize how important it is for seniors to have somebody to talk to. Once I did that, I said, ‘I like this.’ So I went to North Texas State and got a specialist-in-aging certification.  And then we expanded the program and I developed a grant where I worked with ministers throughout the state of Louisiana and trained them in gerontology because I felt most individuals get their counseling in our community through the ministers. So if the ministers knew the services, then they could refer them. And that’s the one thing I’d like to see expanded here in Syracuse.

Q: Why is it important to you to give back to the community?

A: I grew up in North Carolina, and my parents were always involved in giving back. That was instilled in me as a child growing up. And I feel that I am where I am today because other people helped. And when my first job was working in special education and Kannapolis, N.C., and I looked at the kids, I saw the need. And that’s when I really said, ‘I’m going to give back.’ Wherever I’ve lived, I’ve taken that as my mission to help others. If you help others, you’re also helping your community. And you help yourself.

My most rewarding job was the four years working at Dunbar. I think I got as much as I gave to the community. And even now, still just to be able to see Dunbar last. I’m very spiritual. There is a reason for why I’m here on this earth, and if you’re given the skills, then you use them to give back.