By Stephanie Herbert
Hometown hero, visionary, and caregiver, Mary Nelson is dedicated to providing services to at-risk greater-Syracuse area youth to unleash their unlocked potential. From mentorships to financial assistance programs, Mary has built an empire of “helpers” to step in for the challenging moments in our children’s lives.
Mary’s dream of inclusion and access didn’t transpire overnight. Mary, a Syracuse resident of over 50 years, saw economic deterioration in her communities and knew something had to change.
Mary’s story starts as a young girl in a family of migrant workers who moved to Auburn in 1968 to change employment and create a successful life. She embodied independence as her parents frequently worked. She considered herself a caregiver as a child because she learned how to cook and support her two brothers.
Despite difficult living conditions and frequent travel, Mary said that education was always a priority in her family. She and her brothers were enrolled in what is now known as Dr. Martin Luther King Elementary School, where she learned the importance of a good education. Mary attended Eastwood Junior High School and Corcoran High School in the following years.
In high school, at age 16, Mary became pregnant with her first child, Bolerianteria. Despite Mary navigating a difficult circumstance, her parents ensured she finished school and walked the stage with her graduating class of 1978. She has no regrets about her childhood and is thankful for programs like BOCES and educational mentors who helped shape her adolescence.
She noted that she never had a “real” childhood as the oldest sibling who cared for others in the family before herself. For example, she would help her siblings with homework and prepare their clothes for school the next day. In doing so, Mary began to understand that having a meal, and being cared for, is one of the most incredible things you can do for a child.
“My commitment to my community, especially for children in need, is truly my passion,” Mary said. “To see them smile, hear their laughter, and feel their joy is my healing from my childhood of not being able to be a child fully.”
From navigating significant loss in her early adulthood to experiencing domestic abuse, Mary was determined to be a great mother to her now three children and navigate this “storm” to come out stronger and wiser than before. Mary feels that love and family can be a liaison for greatness.
When Mary left high school to the present, her story was nothing short of a tragedy-turned to passion. Yet, Mary said she feels no anger or hatred for the traumatic moments in her life, only love, because she believes she can be a positive influence in moments of darkness.
Tired of the violence, Mary decided she could help be the change her community needs. Mary said people used to call her the “backpack lady” as she confronted the streets of Syracuse every August, shouting “STOP THE VIOLENCE,” handing out hundreds of free packs with necessities like food, clothing, and school supplies for children’s return to school. Her vision was clear, and she knew that to make a difference, she had to empower others to do the same. “I can’t relax,” she said.
In August 2002, Mary started youth programming in Syracuse following the loss of her nephew, Darryl Patterson, to gun violence. Mary was inspired to create a platform to provide young people with the necessary values and skills to become exceptional community leaders. She knew that support for children was lacking. She knew gun violence was a growing concern for families in disadvantaged communities. So, in 2009, Mary opened the Mary Nelson Youth Center as a 501c3 nonprofit.
The Mary Nelson Youth Center offers educational programs, health information, career advice, services (nutrition, legal, career, and more), and mentorship.
“Community building is the grassroots of my efforts to communicate to Syracuse youth that education, and not violence, is where success in life can be found,” said Mary. The youth in Syracuse require a lot of support and encouragement, and Mary believes that her center can be the comfort needed when a traditional family isn’t present.
The now thriving youth center wasn’t always financially stable. Mary notes there were scary moments through the early stages of inception when she couldn’t afford rent. However, she said that “Used Car King” Todd Caputo bought the building from Mary, releasing her from making payments and allowing her to focus on what she truly wanted: safe and accessible education for children. Moments like that in her career allowed Mary to double down on her mission and be the community caregiver she knew she could be.
For 23 years, Mary worked at Upstate Medical University, where she interviewed patients for upcoming exams and scans, and as a front desk receptionist in the radiology department. In addition, she worked part-time as a resident counselor at Vera House and in several other speaking roles, consulting on government boards and participating in community groups. Mary was engulfed in every part of the community while continuing to serve her role as president and CEO of the Mary Nelson Youth Center.
Philanthropist Oprah Winfrey took notice of Mary’s incredible journey. In 2014, during a surprise visit, Oprah offered $100,000 to the Mary Nelson Youth Center, kickstarting a robust and fulfilling future for the center and the community it serves. First, Mary grappled with the correct use of the funds; after considering community basketball courts, Mary knew a more robust approach to social services would affect families for many years.
Oprah wasn’t the only one to endorse Mary’s dedication to her mission. Businesses such as Walmart and Lowes, the Jim & Juli Boeheim Foundation, and hundreds more have donated money, services, and items to support the Mary Nelson Youth Center and its thorough programming.
What’s next for Mary Nelson and the youth center?
Every year, on the third Saturday in August, Mary hosts an Annual Youth Day Barbeque where thousands of children (and parents!) can join in back-to-school festivities. The fun includes backpacks, school supplies, food, games, music, guest speakers, and various vendors, all for free. In addition, businesses in the community donated food, supplies, money, volunteers, and tabling activities for the yearly event; in 2019, the event held over 16,000 community members.
Mary is looking forward to record numbers in 2022 for the Annual Youth Day Barbeque, with new features such as Upstate Medical University offering free mammograms and ultrasounds and Keybank financial literacy trucks helping community members to open bank accounts. The event will also allow local businesses to set up their tables and shops to network and personalize the community experience.
Through Mary’s vision, millions of dollars in school supplies, from electronics to toiletries, have been donated to families over the past 18 years. Mary ultimately wants to reinforce the idea that loving and supporting our youth and providing outlets and alternatives to violence will allow students to explore careers and education with less barriers. In addition, Mary wants her center to emulate safety and comfort so community members can get the services they need while feeling like they’re part of a family.
With the tragic loss of her brother to gun violence in 2014, Mary finds herself more determined than ever to give back to the community. Mary said that though her efforts may not end gun violence, they offer a gift of empowerment to every child that receives a backpack or uses a service. In addition, Mary noted that family is critical and, whether your family is present or not, you have a support system who can guide you through challenging transitions.
“Each and every day, I learn something new by giving, and that alone is a gift to me,” said Mary.
Mary started her outreach as a child, caring for her beloved siblings. She journeyed through years of intense and powerful situations to inform a lifetime of support for children in the Syracuse Area.
But she through those setbacks, she followed a simple mantra that helped her continue to pursue a better future for the children in the community she loves: “Don’t let your situation become your circumstance.”