Posted on 01/30/2017

AARP Foundation President Lisa Marsh Ryerson Interviewed On History, Passions

Lisa Marsh Ryerson, AARP Foundation

Lisa Marsh Ryerson, president of AARP Foundation, joined the charity in 2013 after 18 years as president and CEO of Wells College in Aurora, New York.

In an interview with Washington Business Journal, Lisa Marsh Ryerson reveals how her love of work began early. Her parents instilled in their six children the idea that hard work was important, rewarding and fun. And from babysitting to McDonald’s to teaching to serving as president of Wells College — a private liberal arts college in upstate New York — and now as president of the AARP Foundation, Ryerson has carried those lessons with her, maintaining a constant energy for the job at hand.

Career goals as a kid: When I was growing up and really thinking about it, I was absolutely focused on thinking I would be an attorney. I had a vision that I might be a litigator on the floor of a courtroom. I was always interested in putting facts together. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories continue to be some of my favorites.

Early work: I was raised in a family where hard work was always valued. We went to work as soon as possible. I kept my job at McDonald’s in college. I actually learned a lot of life lessons there. It was one of many jobs. I always had a couple of jobs going at once.

Time at Wells: I went to Wells as a work-study student, and started working in the dining hall. I can say that I went from the dish room to the presidency. I didn’t know that I’d stay in Aurora, New York for so long. I thought I was headed to other places, but I ended up taking a job in admissions. Wells was a women’s college and supporting women is a real passion of mine. When I was about ready to leave, I moved into student affairs. I left to become a classroom teacher, but then I returned to higher education. I was dean of students, which was challenging and wonderful. I became executive vice president, then acting president and then president. I stayed 18 years and left in 2013.

On leaving higher ed: Part of leadership is knowing when it’s time to leave. You have to know when an organization needs to have a new leader and when you need to have a new challenge.

The decision to move to D.C.: It was a big decision for us. Two of our children were grown, but my youngest daughter, Julie, was just entering her senior year in high school. We decided that my girls were raised in a family with a focused, working mother. I had always worked and was involved in the community. Our youngest was able to live day to day with another sister to stay in the area for the rest of her school. If Julie had the chance to talk to you she’d say they were raised to be independent, and this encouraged her to be even more so.

Focus for the foundation: What remains a focus in 2017 is that we have all the positives about 10,000 people turning 65 every day. But that growing adult population, with all that wisdom and experience and talent, it also means that many of the growing adult population are low income and vulnerable. A key challenge is making sure we keep the dialogue going to let people know that millions of adults 50 and older live in poverty. Our challenge is to make sure we magnify knowledge and information about the lives of older adults.

The foundation’s work: We work across four broad and connected areas to ensure that older adults have access to nutritious and affordable food, housing that is safe and affordable, access to work and to income-generating opportunities, and to help the growing number of older adults that are lonely or socially isolated.

Battling isolation: There are lonely and socially isolated people across the lifespan, but for a variety of reasons the likelihood increases as you age because you left your community, you have mobility impairment or you’ve lost your friends. We’re working on an engagement program called “Connect2Affect.” It’s an online portal that offers practical tips and advice and a space for individuals to share their stories with us.

The job so far: In a few words, an incredible experience and opportunity. It’s a total honor for me every day to be able to be the champion of our important mission. I am aware every day of the responsibility I have to my team. I get to travel quite a bit and I learn so much from everyone that I meet and the conversations that I have. We are working hard to make sure the fundamental conversation about senior poverty is lifted up from the shadows.

Volunteer work: I’ve supported theater, music and the arts throughout my life. I try to support not just through volunteering and as a donor but as a leader as well. I have the opportunity to serve on boards that are important to me, including the Congressional Hunger Center and L.A. Kitchen.

Best advice from a mentor: One that has been consistent from a couple key mentors in my life is to stay focused and stay the course. It’s so easy to be thrown of course for any of us. I give that advice to individuals now. It all circles right back to my first job at McDonald’s — hard work matters. Customer satisfaction and service is really important. I’m so pleased that I had to work when I was young and it was encouraged as something that was important. You found out that you could work and have fun doing that.

Favorite hobbies: I love the museums. I’m lucky that my work is so close to the Portrait Gallery. I’m just staring my fourth year in the District, so my husband and I are working our way back through all the Smithsonian museums.

*Updated 05/04/2017

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5 Responses to “AARP Foundation President Lisa Marsh Ryerson Interviewed On History, Passions”

April 24, 2017 at 5:39 pm, Diana Mills said:

Hello. I just wanted to let you know that I can not donate cash to your project. I am a senior and disabled,which I am on a fixed income and it pays all of my bills and in turn I have nothing left for food. I am sorry that I can not donate. I am struggling just to make ends meet with what I have. You have always sent me emails about helping seniors who are hungry, with no housing and etc. I have yet to see any help for me. Please don’t misunderstand me. I think you are doing a good thing, but I have yet to see it happen. Thank you for your time.


December 07, 2017 at 7:25 pm, Danny Gann said:

I have made donations regularly to the AARP Foundation and now I need help proving that these were donations and NOT for a life insurance policy. Medicaid is asking for proof and I have tried repeatedly to call and email someone for help, but to no avail. I am beginning to get desperate!!!


January 15, 2018 at 2:31 am, Robin said:

Disappointed to find this website talks about doing good for seniors yet when I click on anything to get help it brings me back to donations and volunteering. Is this like so many other organizations? No
real help but passing it on to someone else who does nothing. We seniors whom are not blessed need real help. Where can we get it when government will not? Not all people have same issues. I need to get a home on my land. Nothing great, a little camper, tiny house, or help converting a shed to a home. I tried it all to get help. Can you?


January 16, 2018 at 2:37 am, Sandi Barber said:

I have been on the job training for four years. I did have a job in between for 3 years now I’m 7 years older no one will hire me at 66′ and AARP kicked me off the program. And I knew that would happen, but I figured that the years I did work in between the for year would account for something. When I ask for a extension that was a definite no. Sorry because I am below property getting only 540. A month. And because I could not even get another year, I have no real chance of of living a half way decient life. It’s hard even to stay out of being depressed. I pray they will give me more time. Or I just won’t make it. People really don’t understand what we go through everyday with out basic needs. Because they have never been below poverty leavel. Thank you and please try and keep me on job training or I will probly become homeless I live in a rural area,vwith no hope of a self-sufficient job. sSandi Barber Ogemaw county, Rose City Mi. Ogemaw county is a depressed county.


January 17, 2018 at 8:12 am, Norma Jean Luikart said:

Dear Pres. Ryerson:
For several years, I have received letters from you and/or the AARP Foundation about being a supporter and contributing to the foundation.
In Feb., 2016, I contributed $15.00. I received more of your letters and then in the latter part of 2016, I started sending $15.00 when I could afford it. By 2017, I had my checking a/c automatically debited every 3 mos. for $15.00 to the Foundation. It’s not much and I’m working towards every other month, but after receiving another of your “same printed letters” with the same starting paragraph…”I hope we can count on your charitable renewal contribution of $15. or more this year. You have been a valued supporter of the Foundation for 4 years, and your last gift to AARP Foundation of $15. in Feb., 2016, helped many seniors in need.” Obviously, no one checked their records before sending that letter or they would have seen that I have sent at least 4-$15.00 contributions since 2/15/16!
I think you need to print a new “standard ” letter to us seniors as this one really doesn’t deserve your signature on it. I really hope you are a little more sincere than this letter makes you sound. I’m sure, when you become a “senior”, you will not be wearing the shoes of those of us who are struggling with living on social security and, if they’re lucky like me, gets a small pension a month their husband left for them when they died. My sister lives on $1100.00 a month from SS and barely makes her rent, food, health ins., and transportation (she doesn’t drive). She is 73 and I’m 80 and I try to help her out the best I can, too. She lives in OH and I live in NH so there is no getting together other than the phone. Well, thanks for listening and, please, change that letter will you?


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