Writing  by Cathy Deutsch

Photography by Justin Negard

“Learning is not attained by chance, it must be sought for with ardor and attended to with diligence” 

– Abigail Adams

Learning begins at birth and continues until our last days. 

According to a 2022 article in The Conversation, an independent news organization, “Adult learners bring life experiences with them when they start a course. Educational research has shown that ‘transformational learning’ results in happier, healthier individuals, who have stronger social networks and enhanced family life. These positive outcomes ripple throughout their families and friendship groups, and across wider communities and society.”

We’ve wondered how this concept plays out in our local communities. 

How do our local institutions serve our residents – especially those who have long graduated from their formal education? How do our neighbors gain employable skills?  Where can people go to enhance their career (called upskilling)? What resources are there for those that go back to school after raising children or being a caretaker for their parents? How do you fulfill a childhood dream to learn a craft, language or art form? 

Here’s what we learned.

Reinvention stories

Mount Kisco resident Ilene Kassman Boucher was a CPA for 34 years with KPMG, one of the four largest accounting firms in the U.S. Although she was successful, having climbed the ranks to partner after only ten years, there was always a regret that she did not follow her “calling to become a doctor.” 

In her early thirties, after her first child was born, she looked into applying to medical school, but because of her age and being the mother of a small child, opportunities were limited. 

Twenty years later, while attending a women’s executive training program in her early fifties, the question was posed, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” She was “stirred to reexamine her career path,” bringing her back to her lifetime dream to become a doctor. 

“Though a scary move at that point in my life,” says Boucher, “I knew it was the right path to take.” 

Boucher retired from accounting in 2021, exchanged her calculator for a stethoscope and began to study full time at Columbia, one of the few schools that offers an accelerated combined program of nursing and doctor of nursing; she will complete her doctorate in 2024. 

Boucher is now working in a family medicine practice and “loves the ability to help people, assess their needs and give them the time and care they need.” 

She says her prior skills as a good communicator dealing with clients has helped her put “patients at ease.”

“The world has changed, and it’s okay to start over,” she says. ”One must keep learning – it’s humbling to be a new learner, but it feels great.”

Artist Jill Leary also reinvented herself later in life. Leary earned her degree in ceramics from Syracuse University and taught art in the Brewster school district for 12 years. After taking a hiatus to raise her children, Leary realized she no longer wanted to work in elementary and middle school classrooms. She then taught in local art schools and decided to craft her vision of “an art school that was more upscale so students could work in a modern, user-friendly, naturally-lit environment.”  

Leary found the old Lakeland Lumber building in Croton Falls met all of her needs, and she opened Railyard Arts Studio in 2019. She designed the space to house multiple disciplines, including wheel throwing, hand building, painting, sketch, watercolor, stained glass, jewelry and millinery, plus she also offers art therapy and meditation. 

Railyard Arts is now running at full capacity, and students can buy a membership that allows them to have 24/7 access to the building to work on their projects.

“My vision for a cooperative, nurturing art center has been realized, and I’m excited to see how it evolves in the years to come,” she says. “Most of my students are older adults, largely women who have retired and are looking to learn something new or revisit a passion they put on hold.” 

Leary is providing a space that experts say can improve the quality of life, cognitive function and self-esteem, among other things, in older adults.

Jeanne Allen, Railyard Art’s shop manager and an occasional teacher says she “always loved art-making, particularly ceramics.” As an industrial designer, she held a variety of design-related jobs, including one at Dansk International, but she always wanted to get back to clay work. 

“My life has come full circle,” she says. “I started out as a ceramicist, and now that I’m back working with clay, managing the studio and substitute teaching, I’m living my dream.” 

Educating our community

Our region is rich with residents of various cultures, especially those hailing from Latin and Central America. For these neighbors, immigrating to the United States often means learning a new language, and sometimes new skills, to gain employment. 

The Community Center of Northern Westchester in Katonah serves anyone in need with food and clothing, but according to program assistant Julietta Appleton, their “English as a second language program (ESL) and well-stocked food bank are the most impactful programs.” Importantly, ESL has enabled hundreds of local residents to become employable. 

Katonah resident Juan Lopez came to this country from Guatemala fin 2010 and immediately sought their resources. 

“Learning English made me able to start my own landscaping and design business,” he explains. “I studied English for four years and worked hard. The center was very supportive and patient and gave me the skills I needed to communicate with my customers. That has been a big part of my success.”

Lopez’s staff of five also took ESL classes at the center, and now his company is fully bilingual. His family members and children also took classes, are bilingual and prospering in the community and their schools.

As the center’s educational program grew, they needed more space and now have a storefront on Katonah Avenue called The Community Studio. Clients can take ESL classes, computer classes, sewing classes, entrepreneurship training and OSHA certificate classes.  Many have found the power of a needle and thread and computer proficiency as a way to help support their families and participate in their communities.

Neighbors Link in Mount Kisco yields similar success stories thanks to their various programs which support their “inclusion and integration” mission. 

One such story is Ana Muralles, a former client who is now a member of their board of directors.

“Ana came to the United States when she was 22 years old from Guatemala,” says Carola Bracco, the executive director. “She was undocumented for many years and worked as a nanny for a local family. A few years ago, she became a U.S. citizen.”  

“Ana came to Neighbors Link to learn English and also to take our sewing classes,” Bracco continues. “She did not have any sewing experience, and she sometimes jokes that she learned how to thread a needle in our sewing program. Today she is an expert, and her English is quite fluent. She met her business partner, Claudia Gomez, in our sewing program. Through our Workforce Development program, the two women decided to start a business together and received our support in all aspects of incorporation, business planning and banking. Today, AC Designs is a thriving upholstery and window treatments company in Bedford Hills.” 

In addition to their English and skills classes, Neighbors Link, which has satellite locations in Ossining and Yonkers, also offers their clients a pro bono legal team that can assist in immigration issues, housing or any problem that requires legal attention.

Being a learner

Wherever you fit in the landscape of learning, there are endless opportunities to increase brain power, creativity and business skills. It’s never too late to enhance professional skills, learn something new or follow an interest you had as a child but never had the chance to learn. 

Westchester Community College (WCC) is another way adults can learn and even receive an associate’s degree. They offer non-accredited classes, adult education, workforce training and a plethora of cultural interest classes. 

According to Mark Stollar, director of strategic marketing and communications, “adult education is a very strong component of our program.” 

Some students, he says, study to enhance professional skills and others take classes to dig deeper into their personal interests. 

“I recently took a class on The Beatles,” he says. “It was fantastic to learn more about a band that has had such an influence on our culture.” 

Additionally, four years ago, WCC began offering scholarships to students interested in entering a trade or other applied learning program.  Coincidentally, it’s sponsored by a world-famous band – no, not The Beatles. It’s actually sponsored by the heavy metal band Metallica who began their Metallica Scholars program in 2019. They now offer scholarship programs in 42 schools across the country, including WCC. 

And, of course, there are free classes available at our local libraries for all types of learners, ranging from three months old to seniors, based on each community’s needs. 

Katonah Village Library, for example, offers a class called “Great Discussions,” led by local resident Harry Stanton. 

“This series is an offshoot of the Foreign Policy Association program founded in 1918 and reconstituted in 1923 by Eleanor Roosevelt, designed to offer a forum to discuss great issues of the world,” he explains. “It’s been offered in Katonah for over 20 years and continues to grow in both subject matter and attendance, especially among seniors as many are interested in discussing issues in our changing world.” 

It’s time to learn

Some resources are right down the street, others can be found online from the comfort of your own home, and you can easily find in-person classes just a short drive away. Regardless of where you choose to go or what you want to do, it’s never to late to learn something new or practice a beloved art form.

Take your inspiration from local artist Ed Giobbi, featured in our last issue – he recently turned 97, and he’s still painting. 

This article was published in the September/October 2023 print edition of Katonah Connect.

Cathy Deutsch
+ posts

Cathy Deutsch is a resident of South Salem and a former local shopkeeper in Katonah and Mount Kisco. She previously wrote a restaurant column for The Country Shopper and is currently a contributor to several local publications. Additionally, Cathy’s personal essays have been published on noted on-line platforms including Dorothy Parker’s Ashes. “Writing has always been my passion, and I’m very excited to be writing for Katonah Connect,'' she says. Perhaps not coincidentally her last article for Katonah Connect was about Note Perfect Coffee, and for this issue, she wrote about what’s trending in the world of cocktails – her favorite ways to begin and end her day. While Cathy looks forward to exploring and writing about non-edible topics, she’s definitely enjoyed the complimentary libations.