SILIVE.COMSTATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- Compassion has no off switch, so neither does Carol Dunn.
As the executive director of the Staten Island Inter-Agency Council for Aging, she's been the go-to person for senior citizens in crisis for 18 years. And sincere concern is the fuel that keeps her motor running at all hours, any day of the week, until each problem is solved.
Nights. Weekends. Holidays. Vacations. At no time is Ms. Dunn, 73, off duty. She operates the council without a staff or salary, on a shoestring budget, in a dusty, cluttered little office tucked away on the grounds of Sea View Hospital Rehabilitation Center and Home. And does it with a smile and sense of humor that puts even the most distressed families at ease.
"She doesn't live by a clock by any means,'' said Cynthia Roberti, the president of the executive board for the council, and the provider relations manager for the Visiting Nurse Service of New York. "She's selfless. She neglects herself for other people. She never, ever puts herself first.''
Her gift is her ability to match a need with a provider, whether it is hospice care, an extended-care facility or a home-delivered meal. "She's the perfect matchmaker, '' Ms. Roberti says with a laugh. "She knows who does what so well, she's always able to find the right person. That's what makes her so unique.''
In doing so, she helps the seniors -- many dealing with terminal illness, loneliness, dementia, homelessness and anger -- find more than resources. She helps them rediscover their own value.
Sometimes, a senior will only need a social outlet, in which case her knowledge of every Friendship Club and senior center on the Island comes in handy. "Being connected,'' she said, is vital to the seniors and their families. "You just need to be part of society and feel like you're contributing,'' she said.
The most serious calls come at all hours. "Just think, it must be an awful feeling, realizing you have to put a loved one in an institution, realizing that it's the best thing for them,'' she said. "Most people wait until the eleventh hour. They are desperate. It breaks my heart.''
Empty nests, and sometimes the loss of a life companion, will leave many seniors with devastating isolation and feelings of worthlessness. "If you don't have the right people around you, it's tough,'' she said.
Additionally, she's is an energetic organizer, feverishly planning and holding seminars, open houses and workshops for seniors and nursing homes and other providers, allowing them to network and build relationships.
"She does the clerical work, she does the critical thinking,'' said Ms. Roberti, who works with her often to plan seminars and workshops. "She does it all.''
It's not unusual for Ms. Dunn to put in a 70-hour week, especially since city budget cuts resulted in her agency losing nearly 70 percent of its funding in 2008. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration didn't see her agency as one providing "direct services,'' she says, and the results were devastating. Her two staffers had to be fired and her salary all but disappeared, save contributions from generous board members looking to give her at least a meager wage.
"I had a substantial reserve,'' said Ms. Dunn, who'd been at the helm since 1997. She'd been frugal in previous years, even relocating from a plush New Dorp office to the low-budget Sea View space, where hand-me-down furniture mixes with dust and decades-old technology. And she'd been considering leaving the post, until the cuts hit. "The bottom fell out and you don't leave,'' she said. "I just felt it wasn't the right thing to do. ''
Ms. Dunn, who ran the Stapleton Local Development Corp. from 1990 to 1997, and Richmond Senior Services in the late 1980s, still finds time to dedicate to countless boards and charities, including the National Alliance of Mental Illness, the community advisory board of Sea View Hospital Rehabilitation Center and Home, Community Board 2, the Borough President's Committee for Persons with Disabilities, the Staten Island Partnership for Community Wellness, the Staten Island Alzheimer's Foundation, RSVP/SERVE, the American Cancer Society, the South Beach Civic Association and the Staten Island Heart Society.
The Great Kills native learned the Golden Rule from good sources. Her parents, Henry and Leonora Greser, taught her at an early age the value of hard work, and of putting the needs of others before your own. Her father was working at age 7 to help support his family. Her mom had been permitted one year of high school before heading out to help her family get by.
"They worked and worked and worked,'' she says of her parents. "But they never said, 'Oh, poor me.''' Her dad eventually became a city police lieutenant. Both, like Ms. Dunn, enjoyed learning. "He read, and read and read,'' she recalled of her father.
EDUCATION ON HOLD
She, too, delayed her education for the good of her family.
As a young, divorced mother, Ms. Dunn did odd jobs while living in New Paltz, N.Y. -- she once laid floors and painted homes -- to support her son, Robert. "Anything I could do so that I could have more time with him,'' she recalls.
Later, after returning to Staten Island, her son played football at New Dorp High School, eventually earning an athletic scholarship to the University of West Virginia. In 1987, they both received bachelor's degrees -- hers was from the College of Staten Island. She'd earned it while working full time. She'd later earn a master's degree from the State University of New York at New Paltz.
Lately, Ms. Dunn's been giving more thought to slowing down, and has been reducing her hours. She is in the process of moving to Brick, N.J., to be closer to her son, his wife, Michelle, and her teenage granddaughter, Caitlyn. She's hopes a partnership with Lifestyles for the Disabled, which currently focuses on those with developmental disabilities, will keep her beloved council alive and effective.
Yet, the plight of the Island's senior population always tugs at her heartstrings.
"What I do, it's not brain surgery,'' she says with a laugh. "It's just taking some time out to figure out what they need, and helping them find resources. If you make one life a little better, it's all worth it.''