In the summer of 1976, Stephan Russo started work at Goddard Riverside Community Center on the Upper West Side as a youth outreach worker. Forty years later, he’s finally leaving.
Russo, executive director at Goddard for the last 18 years, surprised the organization’s board earlier this month with word that he plans to step down at the end of the year, having helped to turn the institution into a social-services powerhouse, with a $30 million budget and a staff of 350. Goddard helps more than 17,000 people a year, with everything from college counseling and homeless services to job training for older New Yorkers.
In an interview, Russo said even though he’ll turn 65 in late April, he’s not yet ready to retire. He said he decided to step down this year because Goddard is strong, and he still has the energy for a new challenge.
“I feel I have another professional act in me,” he said. “I want to take what I know and use it in another form.”
Over the last couple of years, Goddard and its board have embarked on a strategic plan to determine the direction of the organization. With that work now set to begin, Russo said it seemed like a good time to let someone else take charge.
“It’s time for a new generation,” he said. “Change can be good for the organization.”
Last summer, Russo engineered a merger between his agency and Lincoln Square Neighborhood Center, strengthening the social-service offerings on the West Side. Both organizations have been forced to deal with strained government services, particularly in the area of homelessness.
Even though Mayor Bill de Blasio has been blamed for being slow to attack the city’s homeless problem, Russo said it would be a tough job for any mayor, given the shortage of affordable housing. “Systemically, we’ve got a real problem in this city.”
In terms of what’s next for Goddard, the board is expected to hire an executive recruiter and this week will start meeting about a replacement for Russo. Sabin Danziger, who sits on the boards of both Goddard and Lincoln Square, said Russo’s depth of knowledge and long tenure at the agency will be tough to replicate. “It’s a loss, there’s no question,” Danziger said. “But the organization is bigger than any one individual. It’s an opportunity. The person is out there somewhere.”
Russo agreed that the process of replacing him could represent a new chapter for Goddard. “I care deeply about this place,” he said.