Celebrating Five Years: An Interview with Alice Zaccarello

Five years ago the Board of Directors of The Well Community made one of the most important—and best—decisions it has made for our organization. After a careful search we brought on Alice Zaccarello as our Executive Director. During her tenure we have seen awareness of The Well widen and the circle of community support deepen. Her compassion for our members and her leadership of our programs reflects her good heart and her wise ways. We wanted you to get to know more about Alice’s perspective on her role, her job, her ministry. The following is a brief interview with Alice. I hope you’ll enjoy these glimpses into her thoughts, and, when you have the opportunity, join me in thanking her for ongoing service to The Well. – Wes Keyes, Chairman of the Board of Directors

How did you first hear about The Well Community?

I live in North Oak Cliff and attend Kessler Park United Methodist Church. Once a year Joel Pulis, the founder of The Well Community, would bring members of The Well to my church so we could worship together and so he could share the story of The Well. As I sat in my pew, I was fascinated by the unique services The Well offered that made it a special place. I can still remember some of the members who attended. Little did I know that one day I would meet them at The Well.

What drew you to The Well?

From the moment I first learned about The Well, something drew me to it. I had been the Executive Director of other nonprofits in Dallas and was looking for three things in my next position.

First, I wanted to do something that would impact the Oak Cliff community, where I grew up and where I live today. I had been watching local community leaders, developers and idea-makers helping our neighborhoods become even better places, and wanted to do something, too. (I have always thought Oak Cliff is great, though!)

Second, I wanted to work in a faith-based environment. My faith has always been foundational in my life.

Third, I wanted my next leadership position to be with an organization that was addressing an important social issue. Plus, I have always been intrigued by the brain. When I learned about the upcoming opening for executive director, I knew immediately that it was what I wanted to do and where I wanted to be.

How did your experience with other nonprofits prepare you to serve at The Well?

Each nonprofit has its own personality. Much of what you do in leadership is the same, but there are nuances with each organization. Everything I learned from and gave to other organizations has come together perfectly at The Well.

What have you learned since becoming Director?

People care about The Well—a lot of people care. This is intrinsically vital to our members, because they seldom feel important or cared about by others outside of The Well.

What has surprised you?

I came to The Well with positive expectations. I knew it would be a good experience. What I didn’t expect was how deeply inspirational it would be. Our members, volunteers, donors, staff and interns are all sources of this inspiration.

Our members’ lives are so very difficult. According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, our basic requirements for survival include things such as food, shelter, water, warmth, rest and safety. But, none of our members have any guarantee of that. For example, most live in substandard housing. They never know when they’ll need to move, and many do so often. Most of the time, they leave the majority of their belongings behind when they relocate as they have no way to transport their possessions on their own, forcing them to start over every time they move.

Most live on very limited income—those who receive the maximum SSI benefit survive on $771 a month—and they spend at least 75 percent of it on housing. That leaves about $190 for food, medications, public transportation and other needs. Some of our members have no income. Some are homeless. It doesn’t take much for their lives to fall apart.

Despite all of that, do I hear them complaining about their situations? No. They are forced to live a day at a time and understand there are no guarantees for them. They know they are taken advantage of sometimes. They realize that stigma is real, that people often do not treat them kindly. Yet, what I hear at The Well is laughter. What I see are smiles. And, when members do have a crisis, they have someone to turn to at The Well.

Our staff and interns inspire me as well. Our small yet mighty staff are deeply committed not just to The Well, but to our members; they care about each and every one. They work too much, don’t always take their vacation, never eat their lunch on time and come in when they are not feeling well. On top of all that, they are fun! We also have been fortunate to have outstanding interns from local colleges and universities.

Our volunteers are a dynamic source of inspiration. Throughout the year many individuals and groups help us with numerous things we could never accomplish without them—for instance, serving meals during Thursday Night Life, befriending members and helping at the Community Life Center during the day, assisting with our special events and serving in leadership positions like our Board of Directors or The Well Auxiliary. Their dedication to offering their time and talent helps give The Well its unique personality.

It is through the hands of many that our members have a special place to belong. When members see that someone wants to get to know them or do something for them, their dignity and self-confidence are boosted. Often, outside of the walls of The Well, they are not accepted just because they might look or act differently than others. But, at The Well, they know they are respected. They know we are there for them, staff and volunteers alike.

Finally, our donors inspire me. The only way The Well can keep its doors open for members is through the generosity of others. For 17 years, long before the general public was talking about mental illness, the doors of The Well opened, thanks to our founder, Joel Pulis, and his friends and family. Individuals began stepping forward to make annual and monthly commitments to support The Well. It is encouraging to see that level of compassion continue to be faithfully expressed in such a practical way by more and more people in our community.

The gifts we’ve received have ranged from a dollar to thousands of dollars. I am moved by every donation because I have the unique opportunity to see what a difference their gift to The Well makes. Our members have something to look forward to, a place where they get to be with their friends and have fun, a place where there are thought-provoking activities, a place where they can learn new art techniques, a place where they get a hot, nutritious meal, a place to worship, a place to turn to when things go awry. Our donors are not at The Well every day, but they are always with us.

What has been most encouraging to you in your time at The Well?

I am motivated every day by seeing the combination of people I just mentioned come together to make sure that The Well is successful. Ultimately, they make sure members of The Well get the programs and services they need, because without The Well Community these individuals—who live every day with serious mental illnesses—would have no one to turn to when times are tough. And there would not be a loving community where they belong.

I can’t help but think of one of our members who constantly smiles; she always has something nice to say about everyone. Several months ago she had a stroke, which affected her speech and mobility and made it difficult for her to talk and walk. But, as soon as she could walk with a walker, she came back to The Well. She might be much slower now, but she still keeps a smile on her face and she still has a kind word to say to everyone. I am so fortunate to serve our members; they stir my heart.

What are you most proud of?

I am most proud that I get to be a part of The Well. I get to walk the journey of life with our members, and we get to be in community with each other, making one another’s lives better. And, I get to be part of an amazing staff. I get to meet and work with people from all walks of life. I am one lucky person who does not realize she has a job—she just knows that she gets work at an inspirational place and be a part of the incredible story of hope and healing for so many.

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