Mary Ann Elder, a licensed clinical social worker who devoted much of her life to helping the poor, the elderly, the vulnerable and individuals grappling with addiction, died Saturday, June 1, 2013, at her home in Cape Coral. She was 65.
She managed the homeless shelter at the Fort Myers Salvation Army for several years, served as a clinician at Southwest Florida Addiction Services from 2002 to 2012, operated a private counseling practice and facilitated support groups as part of the Intervention Project for Nurses. Her entry into social work was delayed by a two-year stint as an art teacher at Lochland School, a private institution for the developmentally disabled and mentally ill in Geneva, N.Y. She took a part-time job as a field worker for the Voluntary Action Center in 1976, launching a career ended by cancer nearly four decades later.
"I liked helping people. I liked advocating for them. And I liked empowering them," said Mary Ann of her attraction to social work.
Mary Ann Elder
In New York, she worked as a migrant health coordinator at a rural clinic, served as a case worker for the Association for Retarded Children, counseled parents at risk of abusing their children and coordinated family services at a pre-school Head Start program. She was named program director for the fledgling Ontario County Community Action Program in 1990.
"There was no staff, no resources, no programs to direct," Mary Ann recalled.
When she departed three years later, the agency served the poor with a staff of six and an army of 94 volunteers. Programs ranged from emergency housing to supportive counseling.
She moved to Cape Coral in 1994, taking a job as program director for the Easter Seals Society in Fort Myers, an early intervention program for children and their families. She later worked as a health educator for the Lee County Breast Screening program. She switched her focus to addiction issues while at the Salvation Army, becoming a drug and alcohol counselor in the Crossroads program.
Born in Rochester, N.Y., she was the daughter of German immigrants, Engelbert and Mary Oechsle. She attended the College of St. Teresa in Winona, Minn., and Loyola University (New Orleans), earning a studio arts degree at The College at Brockport in New York. She went back to school at the age of 51 and received her master's degree in social work from Florida Gulf Coast University. She was named Student Social Worker of the Year in 1999.
She was a jack of all trades, renovating a 100-year-old home in Geneva and operating a wallpapering business there for 18 months. She was a grant writer, helping several organizations, including the Symphonic Chorale of Southwest Florida, receive funding. She enjoyed singing and was an alto with the chorale and the Southwest Florida Symphony Orchestra Chorus. She is a member of St. Andrew Church and was a cantor there for many years.
In 2008, she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of uterine cancer and underwent numerous surgeries, radiation treatments and chemotherapies yet she continued to live life to the fullest. In 2010, she took an adventure trip to Belize which included white water kayaking. Last summer, she visited Costa Rica. "I will not allow cancer to define me," Mary Ann said.
Survivors include Rudy, her husband of 44 years, a former hospice social worker; son, Christopher; brothers, John (Kathy) and Bert; a sister, Barbara; brothers-in-law Tom, Jim (Geraldine) and Greg (Ann); sister-in-law, Debbie; favorite aunt, Daisy; friend, Alice; and many nieces and nephews.
She was predeceased by her sister, Rita, and brother-in-law, Chuck.
Funeral Mass will be held at noon, June 15, at St. Andrew Catholic Church, 2628 Del Prado Blvd., S, Cape Coral. A reception will follow.
Donations may be made to the Symphonic Chorale of Southwest Florida, PO Box 07105, Fort Myers, FL 33919, or to the Mary Ann Elder Scholarship Fund for social worker students at the Southwest Florida Community Foundation, 8771 College Parkway, Building 2, Suite 201, Fort Myers, FL 33919. Indicate that your contribution is for the scholarship fund.
Friends are invited to send condolences via the on-line guest book which can be found at www.MullinsMemorial.com.
Mullins Memorial Funeral Home & Cremation Service, Cape Coral, is entrusted with final care.