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Dan Hust | Democrat

LINDA CELLINI STANDS inside the Wellness Center at Monticello High School, the first major initiative of the new Monticello YMCA, of which she is the development director. Already open to the public and students, the center offers the latest in a huge variety of fitness equipment.

New Position Fits Cellini to a 'Y'

By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO — January 11, 2008 — Linda Cellini initially called it “a need for a change due to my personal circumstances.”
But when she started recalling her 23 years with the Sullivan County United Way, the words began to flow.
There were words of nostalgia:
“I helped incorporate it in 1984. It started in my basement.”
There were words of affection:
“We had a lot of wonderful years. . . . If you can make a change in one person’s life, it’s worth it.”
There were words of bewilderment:
“I think society has changed . . . that we have to do it ‘by the book.’ . . . I think the newer people [on the United Way’s board] felt structure had to be put in place.”
There were words of anger:
“I wasn’t sitting at the United Way’s office [in Monticello during husband Tony’s three-month hospitalization], but I was able to oversee. I didn’t log all that stuff [I did during that time], but I was not aware that I had to keep a diary down there.”
There were words of sorrow:
“My heart was broken. I was tired, hurt, full of emotions and shock. I’d walk into the office, and I felt like I didn’t even belong there.”
There were words of conviction:
“I just don’t feel I owed them the time back. . . . I was kind of shocked when I was told I’d have to repay the hours.”
And there were words of hope:
“I’m very happy at the YMCA. They welcomed me with open arms.”
It’s been a year of change for Cellini, probably the most she’s ever seen in her 60 years of life.
Back in January, she was in her 23rd year as the executive director of the Sullivan County United Way, a glorified name for a $48,000/year, no-benefits job that nearly always required her to work on holidays, handle operations with a part-time and volunteer staff, and deal with county residents in their darkest, most desperate hours of need.
She loved it.
“It was a real good feeling,” she said, recalling in particular Project Care, an initiative she started to coordinate area organizations’ holiday food drives, ensuring minimum duplication and maximum outreach.
For nearly a quarter of a century, she schlepped around Sullivan County – often with sons Todd and Chris in tow – making sure people had the food, shelter and services they needed.
“The looks on people’s faces were just incredible,” she said of one frozen Christmas night when she and her boys delivered a meal to a tiny shanty.
Of another dark and dangerous night, she related: “When the floods happened in Livingston Manor, I never sent out a crew. I was up there myself.”
But this year, as spring was turning to summer, she found her own family in desperate need.
Tony, the man she married shortly after the then-TWA flight attendant found a home in Monticello, was stricken with an abdominal blockage.
His intestines were being strangled by scar tissue left over from a previous round of surgery, and the 66-year-old Thompson town supervisor was literally at death’s door.
Linda knew she had to be with Tony – if for no other reason than to ensure constant medical care in overcrowded, understaffed hospitals. Though the medical care was top-notch, Cellini was sure her husband would have died had she not been at his bedside to call for help when needed – or, as the doctors affirmed, to be his strength on the long road to recovery.
Through the kindness of the staff at Mt. Sinai in New York City, Cellini was given a small office to conduct her United Way work remotely.
“I needed my mind to be busy at times,” she explained.
Grateful to be able to bring Tony home on Labor Day weekend – with the ongoing help of a public health nurse – Cellini nevertheless found her hours still consumed with caring for the love of her life. He needed medication, trips to doctors’ appointments and near-constant attention.
“It’s not like you sleep restfully during a time like that,” she related.
Yet she returned wholeheartedly to her job at the United Way . . . only to find a board displeased with the enormous amounts of time spent out of the office that summer.
An argument ensued over how much vacation time she could take and how much she’d have to pay out of pocket.
Cellini said she agreed to give back five weeks’ worth of vacation time, but the board wanted more.
Hurt by a group of people she felt did not understand or acknowledge the thousands of unpaid hours she devoted to the United Way for more than two decades, Cellini began searching for a new job.
For a time, it was nothing but “long days, short nights, sadness there and sadness at home,” she recalled.
One of her many contacts in the world of non-profits told her the Middletown YMCA was looking for a development director, with an eye on expanding into both Monticello and Monroe.
So she contacted Executive Director Randy Grant, who was more than happy to accommodate Cellini’s need for flexibility and desire for a job that aided both her community and herself.
Negotiations resulted in a better salary and benefits, plus a retirement package, but she remained unsure about actually leaving the United Way.
“My family bet I wouldn’t go,” she said, smiling at the thought. “I’m 60 years old – I didn’t expect to change careers at age 60!”
One last letter asking her board to reconsider was met with a response speaking of the United Way’s responsibility to its donors and to proper policy and procedure.
“So I gave them 30 days’ notice,” she recalled.
And in November, Linda Cellini became the director of development for the Middletown, Monticello and Monroe YMCA, tasked with creating programs, funding streams and good will for a rapidly expanding facility.
Barely a month into her new job, she admits to still having mixed emotions, “but I did the right thing.”
That said, she wants no one to think the United Way is no longer worth their time and money.
“I think people should consider supporting it,” she affirmed, noting that, as always, United Way donors can earmark how their dollars are used. “It’s still my baby, even though it’s like kissing a child goodbye at their wedding.”
The YMCA, however, has given her opportunities she never would have explored otherwise – not the least of which is yoga and swimming classes that have had a healthy effect on her and Tony.
“It’s a fun organization,” she remarks. “It’s casual, it’s sports, it’s kids, it’s all the things I love working with.”
But it’s what she’s been able to give the YMCA that matters most to Cellini.
“We can create any type of program,” she says – and she has, like ballroom dancing with Monticello instructor Norty Hyman.
Perhaps more accurately, it’s what she will give to the YMCA.
“Our main goal is to have a real, physical building in Sullivan County,” she relates.
And that far exceeds Monticello, where a wellness center and dance studio have already opened to the public and students inside the Monticello High School.
“I want to start programs . . . in other areas,” she confirms, resurrecting her countywide zeal from her United Way days.
In concert with coworker Ross Miceli, she’s using sophisticated demographics software to determine where needs exist throughout Sullivan County – and to respond with the appropriate programs.
“It’s to see what our community wants,” she explains.
Down in Monroe, she’s working with the local nuns and another non-profit group to turn an old convent into the place-to-be for everyone in and around the village.
Her enthusiasm for it all is infectious, demonstrating an undimmed desire to make lives better.
Though she does admit she can get a little impatient.
“I’m a Cellini,” she remarks with a grin, “so I’d like everything done yesterday.”
But tomorrow remains her focus, and while she acknowledges her plan to retire someday, that’s the furthest-out of her long-range goals.
There’s a summer camp to create for local kids.
There’s a volleyball program that needs a sponsor to purchase $1,500 worth of balls and nets.
There’s an outreach effort to the Orthodox Jewish community to initiate.
There’s a new center to build (and fund).
And there are lives to change – starting with her own.
“I’m calmer,” Cellini says. “I don’t have the tension I had.
“It’s a totally different atmosphere,” she adds. “There isn’t a day that goes by where my boss doesn’t say, ‘Wow! We’re glad to have you here.’”
The seven full- and part-timers she works with in Monticello in particular have made her feel welcome and wanted, and that warmth has already attracted upwards of 50 paid members to the new wellness center.
But don’t think Cellini’s satisfied – there’s a lot of work yet to do, a lot of people to introduce to the YMCA.
So her challenge to residents has a familiar echo, the same words she often employed at the United Way:
“Think positive. Together we can make things happen in Sullivan County.”

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