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The Post Standard/Herald-Journal
Doctor Changes Career To Community Activism; Maritza Alvarado Gives Up Medical Profession To Run Spanish Action League.
By Mike McAndrew, Staff writer
29 November 2004
Maritza Alvarado achieved her dream.
Then she dreamed a new dream.
Six weeks ago, Alvarado gave up a lucrative career as a physician to become executive director of the Spanish Action League of Onondaga County, a small nonprofit organization based in one of Syracuse's poorest communities.
Instead of being introduced as my daughter, the doctor, Alvarado's handle will be that of a community leader.
Instead of caring for the smallest and sickest infants, Alvarado is now spending her days at the league's 700 Oswego St. office, overseeing the delivery of services to more than 1,000 Hispanic adults and youths.
"I'm earning one-third of what I was earning," Alvarado, 46, said with a smile. "But you don't go into this for the salary."
Miguel Perez, chairman of the league's board of directors, said, "Making a change like this speaks to the individual and how important the Latino community is to her."
He and Alvarado declined to disclose her new salary.
Alvarado was raised in Brooklyn and the Bronx by parents born in Puerto Rico. Her father installed lawn sprinkler systems. Her mom was a seamstress.
"We weren't rolling in money," Alvarado said.
But Alvarado decided as a child she wanted to be a doctor - something no one in her family had ever become.
"Something in eighth grade just clicked. I thought wouldn't it be really great if I could help other people," she said.
After moving to Syracuse, Alvarado worked as a pediatrician and neonatologist for 14 years at St. Joseph's Hospital, Crouse Irving Hospital and in private practice. Recently, she's been training residents at University Hospital in pediatrics.
Alvarado said her career change wasn't a spur-of-the-moment decision. For the past six years, her interests have been gradually evolving from medicine to community services.
It started when she participated in 1998 in Leadership Greater Syracuse, a collaboration among business, government and educational institutions to bring together diverse groups of men and women with a common interest in improving the community. Then she began to get involved in the Central New York Community Foundation, the United Way, the Women's Fund of Central New York, and the Community Wide Dialogue on Racism.
Two years ago, Calvin Corridors, the past chairman of the Spanish Action League's board, persuaded her to join the league's board.
Meanwhile, Alvarado's husband, Dr. Andrew Knoll, was going through a similar mid-life career change. Knoll, an emergency room physician and hospitalist, also left medicine. He's now a lawyer in Syracuse specializing in health-care issues.
"Both of us became dissatisfied with the practice towards the later part of our tenure in medicine," Knoll said.
Alvarado said she first applied to become the league's executive director in May 2003 when the board fired Fanny Villarreal de Canavan. The board hired Mayra Orsini, a manager of Onondaga County's job placement agency, instead. When Orsini submitted a resignation in September, citing health reasons, Perez asked Alvarado if she was still interested in the position.
"Now, I'm just advocating for children and parents on a different level," she said.
His wife's job change was surprising to many of their friends and colleagues in the medical and legal community, Knoll said.
"The typical is you have this conversation at a cocktail party and someone says, "I can't believe you did this.' But at the end of a 10-minute discussion, they understand."
"I think they understand my heart was someplace else," Alvarado said.
Dr. Robert Hingre said Alvarado will be missed as a physician. The two used to be part of a team of seven neonatologists responsible for round-the-clock care of up to 50 babies in the Crouse Irving's intensive care nursery. In that kind of job, doctors regularly work nights, weekends and holidays. No matter what, you can't miss your shift, Hingre said.
He said Alvarado withstood that pressure, and he has no doubts that Alvarado will succeed at the Spanish Action League, too.
"Maritza has always been good at both the medicine and the interpersonal interaction," he said.
As the league's executive director, Alvarado said she will oversee a staff of 20 and a $1.3million budget, funded primarily by grants from the state and the United Way of Central New York.
The league delivers a wide range of services - housing, domestic violence counseling, breast cancer awareness, job placement and tutoring - to about 1,000 people per year.
Syracuse's Hispanic population is growing quickly, and so are its needs. In 2000, Syracuse had 7,768 people who identified themselves as Hispanic, 5.3 percent of the city's total population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That represented a 64 percent increase in 10 years.
The Children's Defense Fund, a national child advocacy group, reported in 2003 that 53 percent of Syracuse's Hispanic children under 18 - a total of 1,720 children - lived in poverty.
Alvarado said improving services for Latino children is going to be her top priority.
"I couldn't think of anyone better to take care of our children beside Maritza, considering her background as a pediatrician," Perez said.
Alvarado said she wants to improve and expand the after-school services the league provides at its small youth center at 310 Seymour St. She said the league may need to partner with other organizations that have bigger facilities.
"We want to convince kids to stay in school," she said.
"Maritza grew up in the same type of neighborhood as the Spanish Action League exists today, except it was in New York City," Knoll said. "She understands the community. Professionally, as a physician, she has treated many of the clients of the Spanish Action League."
"As a member of the community at large, she has interacted with the leaders and shakers of this community in a way that will allow her to bring their assistance to the Spanish Action League," he said.
Home: 105 Strathmore Drive
New job: Executive director of the Spanish Action League of Onondaga County
Old job: Neonatologist, a doctor who specializes in treating ill infants
On Syracuse: She and her husband, Dr. Andrew Knoll, moved in 1990 from Norfolk, Va., to Syracuse to complete their medical training. "We were on a five-year plan. We kept our house in Virginia. We kept telling ourselves, "Oh, we're going to move back.' Next year, next year, next year. Finally we gave up the ghost and said we're never going to move back. We like it here. We never thought we'd settle here, but it's a great place."