Think now like the pandemic could last indefinitely: I wish I had begun to think that virtual presentations would be useful even long before the pandemic shut down schools. My reach could have been further all along. While I had presented out of state when visiting family and friends (schools in FL, TN, IA and CA), I could have gone beyond driving distance sooner with virtual presentations.
The COVID19 pandemic has disrupted all of our lives. But sometimes disruptions can be times of opportunity. Many people’s livelihoods have been hurt by the pandemic. But some saw this as an opportune time to take their lives in a new direction.
As a part of this series called “How I Was Able To Pivot To A New Exciting Opportunity Because Of The Pandemic”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Geri Mariano, a 53-year-old woman with the congenital condition of Diastrophic Dwarfism/Dysplasia, who was abandoned at birth by her biological parents. When she was 18 months old, Social Services found her a loving family and Geri grew up out in society, attending public school and graduated from both College and Graduate School. For well over 30 years Geri has been raising awareness of issues people with disabilities face, promoting compassion and empathy and inclusion in addition to advocating for increased rights and services. She gives inspirational speeches through her program, “Just Call Me Geri.”
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I was given upat birth by my biological parents when they saw how I came out with skeletal deformities. I was placed in Blythedale Children’s Hospital in Valhalla, New York, where I received not only medical care but much needed nurture and affection during that critical early time in a baby’s development. In late 1968, Westchester County Social Workers were thinking quite progressively when they decided I should not grow up in an institution and so placed my picture in the local county newspaper seeking a family for me. After screening many applications, Social Services placed me with Bill and Doris Mariano and their three daughters. In Spring 1972, my mother took me around to several school districts in mid-northern Westchester County to find one that would accept a special needs student. The law mandating public schools accepting such students wouldn’t come till 1973. Byram Hills was just one of 2–3 districts that agreed, so my family moved from the Bronxville section of Yonkers to the Bedford section of North Castle where Byram Hills schools were located. I was quite fortunate to grow up with classmates who accepted me and my differences from Kindergarten through 12th Grade. My parents also instilled in me a drive for independence and a desire to do as much as possible for myself.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite Life Lesson Quote is quite simple and short: “Be of use.” These words are spoken by Dr. Wilbur Larch to his protégée Homer Wells in John Irving’s The Cider House Rules. As mentioned already, my parents always encouraged me to do for myself. But that was not ever enough for me. I have received so much love, care, help and assistance throughout my life that I always knew I would want to do the same for others. “Be of use” sums up my personal mantra in just three words.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
John Irving’s The Cider House Rules contained the quote I mentioned that became my mantra, “Be of use.” The story starts in an orphanage where Homer Wells, one of the main protagonists, is first encountered. His mentor, Dr. Wilbur Larch, is more a father figure than caretaker and he is the one who instills in Homer to “be of use” in his life. Besides the quote becoming my mantra (one I hope that people can say about me upon my passing), I obviously related to Homer being an orphan since I was abandoned by my biological parents. Of course I was blessed to be raised by parents who saw my picture in a paper and decided they wanted to provide me a home.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before the Pandemic began?
After I received my Master’s degree in Therapeutic Recreation, I was preparing to work in Adult Day Centers but surgeries gone awry starting in 2010 left me more limited and wheel chair bound. I began focusing on increasing speaking engagements with students and other audiences. The last several years I have steadily grown this endeavor. Many schools would have me return every year to talk to a specific grade and I became an annual event, for example at Wampus Elementary School and Mildred E Strang Middle School. I was scheduled to present for the first time at a new school in Sharon, Massachusetts, on March 23rd, 2020, that was canceled when the country shut down.
What did you do to pivot as a result of the Pandemic?
Because of the pandemic and the country shutting down and schools going virtual, the remainder of the last school year, and for the most part the beginning of the current school year, all my usual presentation engagements were not scheduled. As a member of the Armonk Chamber of Commerce, I received regular emails with programs available to businesses impacted by the pandemic. The RXR Volunteer Program, which is offered in partnership with the Westchester County Office of Economic Development, was one such program that caught my eye.
I applied and received assistance from a wonderful gentleman, Nikhil Jagga, who took a personal interest in my business, believing it to be very worthwhile to continue especially as it dealt with students. When I received grant money to purchase new equipment that would allow me to offer virtual presentations, Mr. Jagga was instrumental in providing his IT expertise and advised what would be needed. When all of the equipment was purchased and delivered, Mr. Jagga assisted in setting it all up for me and has been available to answer questions since.
Can you tell us about the specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path?
Thankfully, Wampus Elementary School reached out to me in the Fall and asked if I could do a virtual presentation. Additionally Cottage Elementary School, the one I was to present at in Massachusetts last March, also contacted me around the same time to ask if I could still present, virtually of course. The only way I would be able to keep this endeavor going was to be able to pivot to virtual presenting. Thanks to the assistance I received from the RXR Volunteer Program, I was able to begin offering these virtual presentations.
How are things going with this new initiative?
Very well so far. I presented to Wampus on January 26th and most recently to Cottage Elementary School on March 24th. I have been asked and am scheduling a date to present to graduate classes at Bronx Community College in May. I have even been approached by a professor from Canada and from a Men’s Discussion Club from Sharon, MA (after hearing about me from the school presentation) to book at date in July. I am working on updating my website and even designing a logo. I have expanded my presence on social media with the assistance of a High School intern. I feel confident now that I can present a worthwhile program virtually to any location across the country or world- wide.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
As mentioned already, I’m extremely grateful for the continuing attention and assistance from Nikhil Jagga, from the RXR Volunteer Program. Not only was he helpful in finding the right equipment and setting it up, he continues to refer others to me to assist in other aspects of expanding my reach, i.e.: recommending graphic designers to update website. He remains available to answer questions and offer advice as needed. He has been a Godsend!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?
Receiving a most unexpected call from the professor in Ontario, Canada asking if I could do a virtual presentation. She had seen my name in a text book authored by one of my grad school professors. Before I pivoted to offering virtual presentations, I would not have been even to entertain the idea since I did not have the needed equipment to say I could. The professor is looking to have me become a featured speaker as part of a campus-wide program next Fall. Within a day of the call from Canada, I received a call from a graduate of the same MS program at Lehman College that I was part of — a student whose class I had presented at several years ago for the professor who coauthored the aforementioned textbook that the Canadian professor saw me referenced in.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- What you are starting as a “side gig” can grow more than you know now: I had begun talking with nursery school students while still at Smith College. Upon returning home and trying to figure out a career/work opportunity (limited then/continuing due to limited opportunities for those with disabilities), I began a short program talking each year to my church’s 3 and 4-year-old nursery school students about people who are different like myself. When I moved to my present address, I met my next-door neighbor, a 5th grade teacher. She convinced me I could present a longer program to her students. I wish I had formalized these presentations over 10 years ago and begun utilizing social media when in its infancy.
- Think now like the pandemic could last indefinitely: I wish I had begun to think that virtual presentations would be useful even long before the pandemic shut down schools. My reach could have been further all along. While I had presented out of state when visiting family and friends (schools in FL, TN, IA and CA), I could have gone beyond driving distance sooner with virtual presentations.
- Network, network, network: While I have become accustomed to networking over the last few years, I wish I knew then what I know now…that networking and word of mouth is as valuable as printed and digital advertising. And that I should not be afraid to “toot my own horn.” Sharing what I began with school students would not be seen as “bragging” but offering valuable ideas to people I already had relationships with.
- Leave no stone unturned: Look for opportunities, workshops, coaching programs and grants that would have helped me grow steadily these last several years so I would not have been caught so unprepared when the crisis fell across the country. Fortunately, the crisis forced me to begin looking which is how I came across the RXR Volunteer Program.
- Asking for help is Not a sign of weakness or being Incapable: Because of my physical limitations, I have always felt the need to prove myself. Even in my presentations to students, I would share stories of needing to ask for help reaching for items on high shelves in grocery stores. Yet when beginning this venture and then after the surgeries left me unable to pursue work as a Therapeutic Recreation professional, I should have pivoted sooner and asked others for advice on how to do so. The coaching programs I was part of in November and December impressed upon us participants that no one can do everything alone and is not expected to.
So many of us have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. Can you share the strategies that you have used to optimize your mental wellness during this stressful period?
I talk often with my best friend from grade school who lives in Chicago. I have limited my news intake, read more and indulge in comfort TV (nostalgia channels mostly). I also have a weekly telephone session with my therapist. And I am slowly making progress on a memoir. Writing can be quite cathartic. I’m also excited for the new season of baseball that is about to start!
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I would dearly appreciate impressing upon young people that people with disabilities are people first, not to be labeled (hence “Just Call Me Geri” title) and in fact all people of varying races, religions, cultures, differences of any kind — we are all individuals first and foremost. Everyone should be talked with and not automatically labeled as part of a group. Also, people with disabilities have great talents that are often unrecognized because we are not given the same opportunities to show what we can accomplish. In the current state of our nation, people are focusing more on differences instead of what interests we share and what individuals can accomplish. I am a Libra and we are known for desiring harmony and being peace makers. I always strive to have people learn and understand that differences do not have to separate us.
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!
I would love to have lunch with Jenna Bush Hager. I adored her paternal grandfather, President George HW Bush (#41) as well as her grandmother Barbara Bush. I had reserved a seating at a book reading last April with her before it was of course cancelled. This past September we had a two-minute meet online since I had paid for the meet and greet at the Book Signing, but I didn’t get to express fully my admiration for her grandparents. Since then, she has released a new book about the lessons she learned from all her grandparents (maternal and paternal). I was very close to my grandparents, too and am a student of American History (my undergrad major was American Studies). The late President Bush himself often pivoted from job to job, new responsibilities, new locations until he ascended to the Presidency in 1988. Of course, his signing the Americans with Disabilities Act — the landmark legislation that had its 30th Anniversary last July — endeared him even more to me due to my own life challenges with congenital disabilities. His call for A Thousand Points of Light in his Inaugural speech inspires me still. Hearing her stories in person of her grandparents would be a dream. And if not going too far, I would welcome having lunch with her sister and parents George W. (#41) and Laura Bush as well. Like Ms. Hager-Bush, I love reading and have been following her monthly Book Club discussions.
How can our readers follow you online?
I can be followed on Twitter and Facebook at Just Call Me Geri. My website is still up while pending updating is www.JustCallMeGeri.com where my blogs can be found. I’m also now on Instagram (@Just_Call_Me_Geri) as well as LinkedIn under Geri Mariano.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!