Madeline Patterson has lived her life as an example to others, often donating her time to help others who are less fortunate than she. This year, she is celebrating 22 years of being a Foster Grandparent, through which she has donated approximately 20,000 hours of her time to help children with special needs. She provides her services at Alternatives for Children, located in Setauket, Long Island.
Madeline, who has four biological grandchildren of her own, says that the Foster Grandparent Program offers her the opportunity to mentor a child who is severely physically handicapped—in her case, aged 18 months to five years—and see the joy in the faces of the class when she walks into the room. Madeline explains that she especially enjoys when they call her “Nana” and, because they are so little, hug her around her knees. She stresses that these children have problems just like adults, and that an important part of what she does is to listen to them and soothe their pains. Madeline also appreciates the ability children have to “forgive and forget” and, experiencing things through their eyes “gives you a chance to remember when” and “teach you that you can never stop growing.”
Madeline learned how much she has affected at least one of the children she helped when, after nearly 20 years of not seeing each other, he approached her in a supermarket and told her that he remembered her. When she asked what it was that made him remember her, he patted his chest and said “Because you were soft right here.” This young man, who once required Madeline’s assistance to thrive, was able to go on to study medicine at Stony Brook University, in part, no doubt, because of the care she gave him early in his life.
In addition to her current volunteer work, Madeline is a member of two choirs, the Center Moriches Choir, with which she performs The Messiah, and The Silver Chords, which is comprised of a group of seniors who provide entertainment in schools and nursing homes throughout Suffolk County.
One of 10 children, Madeline has always been strongly involved in her community and in working to improve the world around her. She was the first African-American female hired by the New York Telephone Company when she joined the company in 1943. She had to overcome the challenge of segregation and faced many discriminatory issues, such as having a separate restroom, people not wanting to sit near her and the Red Cross refusing to take her blood. Madeline overcame these challenges by advocating for herself and people of all races, and ultimately had a 40-year career with the company, retiring at the position of supervisor.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Madeline belonged to the Civil Rights Movement and worked to integrate people of color into historically all-white neighborhoods. She marched with Dr. Martin Luther King in 1964 to help gain civil rights, and advocated in the South to allow equal opportunities for minorities. She has also worked for the Board of Elections in order to spread the word about the importance of voting, and believes that voting is an effective means of creating positive change.
Because she still believes in making others as educated as they can be about the issues that affect them, Madeline works to educate others in the community, through church and school, about Alzheimer’s Disease, a disease that one of her brothers is suffering with and that her sister-in-law suffered with for 30 years prior to her death. She attends trainings and meetings at St. Charles Hospital so that she can be as informed as possible (explaining that by the year 2025, it is expected that one in every 10 people will be a victim of Alzheimer’s), thereby making her educational efforts more valuable.