HUDSON–After 27 years as director of the volunteer organization RSVP, Marcella Beigel is stepping down from that post. With her departure the organization is closing its doors due to a lack of funding.
During her tenure she led RSVP’s effort for the Edith Casey Stocking Fund, mobilizing scores of residents and organizations to collect and distribute gifts to kids who might have had no holiday without them. Last year the fund served 1,266 local children and young people with the help of the Columbia County Department of Social Services, its partner in the drive, and Taconic Hills School, Questar III, and the bikers of ABATE.
RSVP, which stands for Retired and Senior Volunteer Program, was one of several service programs originated by President John F. Kennedy in the early 1960s along with the Peace Corps. In Hudson, the program was started by Tony Jones and has been administered by the not-for-profit Columbia Opportunities. It has operated as a clearing house that matched the experience and interests of volunteers with community needs.
Ms. Beigel’s other activities included RIDE, a transport service to help seniors who don’t drive get to medical appointments and also provided companionship and peer networking. She ran a program that tapped the skills of retired firemen to inspect senior citizens’ homes and prevent fires, and she started an oral history project that collected the experiences of senior citizens in the African American communities of Columbia County and compiled them into a curriculum guide for grade school students.
When she arrived in Hudson in the mid 1980s, Ms. Beigel, who declines to give her age, already had a long resume of professional and volunteer experience. She graduated from Case Western Reserve with a degree in dramatic arts and spent her years after college working her way to success in public relations on Madison Avenue during the era depicted in the cable TV show “Mad Men.” She started as a receptionist in 1950 at the public relations firm run by advertising giant Leo Burnett’s brother Verne. Though only 19, she soon graduated to writing copy and running bake-offs for Pillsbury.
In her second job managing PR for the soap and detergent industry, Ms. Beigel became a regular on the Johnny Carson and Today shows, where she offered witty instruction in how to wash an airplane, a limo and a yacht. She made a major splash when she unearthed a rare collection of ancient and antique bathtubs stored in a vault under Long Island sound and staged an exhibit that chronicled bathing habits from ancient Rome to contemporary times. Esquire magazine asked her to pose in the tubs but she politely declined. The exhibit was featured on television and traveled across the nation after its debut at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel.
“It was wild!” said Ms. Beigel of her life on Madison Avenue.
Later, she met and married a TV producer and the couple moved to Rockland County where, in addition to being a wife and mother, she found time for volunteer work, an interest she had developed in childhood when she watched her father take time off from his work as a steel executive in Cleveland to work on building projects for veterans. In New York City she volunteered for the first time to work with burn patients at Saint Vincent’s Hospital in Greenwich Village because that was where she was most needed. “I felt this was important,” she said. “I was warned never to show any feelings on your face as to what you see. As a drama major, I was able to control my facial expressions. I went in. I decided it was going to be fun and I was able to talk to these men without worrying about how they looked.”
In Rockland County she became head of the transportation committee, a volunteer agency charged with upgrading the county’s transportation program. Soon the committee adopted witty graphic designs for buses and shelters that captured the public’s imagination and increased ridership. The group also coordinated its system with neighboring counties in other states.
A public relations job at Nyack Hospital led to the creation of an award winning desk calendar that pulled together images of caring by local artists. “It was the Oscar of the PR business,” said Ms. Beigel.
Her longstanding love of animals led her to spearhead a successful campaign to build an animal shelter in Rockland County that is still regarded as a model facility, which had designated areas for birth, washing animals and stalls for horses.
In the 1970s she directed a volunteer rescue effort after an oil spill and freezing weather trapped thousands of birds in ice on the Hudson River. Hospitals, college students, a congressmen and the public worked together for seven weeks to clean and rehabilitate birds before releasing them back into their habitat.
“Things like this bring out the best in so many people,” said Ms. Beigel. “They take ownership. There’s so much gratification. I wish people could understand that about volunteer activity. Everybody has their own problems, but you forget them while working to solve others’ and you get a sense of achievement.”
“Marcella has a unique ability to create that vision in her head that sparks interest in people,” said Tina Sharpe, executive director of Columbia Opportunities, who has known Ms. Beigel since she started as RSVP’s director in 1985.
Gil Lewis, who worked on the African American oral history project at RSVP, praised Ms. Beigel’s dedication, determination and networking abilities. “She never stopped looking for grants and she found experts to collaborate with who donated their time and developed an action plan,” he said.
“She brought such a level of professionalism to RSVP,” said Sophia Becker, director of the Hudson Family Literacy Program, which also operates under the umbrella of Columbia Opportunities.
But since 2011, Columbia Opportunities has fought an uphill battle to keep RSVP programs running during tough economic times. In the 1990s, RSVP received $44,000 in federal funding along with money from the state and private donors. But with recent steep funding cuts at the state and federal levels, a steady increase in the reporting requirements and with fewer volunteers each year, the RSVP board realized it could not continue.
Other organizations will continue some of RSVP’s work. The Healthcare Consortium will help seniors get to their medical appointments and people will continue the work of the Stocking Fund, but with Ms. Beigel’s retirement, “People will continue to volunteer but will miss being part of a bigger group,” said Ms. Sharpe.