Heritage Christian Services CEO Marisa Geitner ’92, ’95G
by Robin L. Flanigan
photograph by Kurt Brownell
The man was about 18 and had cerebral palsy. Newly hired at Rochester’s Mary Cariola Children’s Center, which supports children with complex disabilities, Marisa Geitner ’92, ’95G, then a Nazareth College freshman, was assigned to help exercise his arms. She felt intimidated by the responsibility of helping someone so vulnerable.
They straddled a bolster. Geitner sat behind the man; supporting his forehead with her hand, he bent at the waist then came back up for a round of modified push-ups. After the tenth one, the man rested his head against her shoulder, struggled to bring her right hand to his chest, took a deep breath, and gave her hand a gentle pat.
“That was the moment I realized I could communicate very effectively and deeply with an individual who couldn’t use his voice to speak,” she recalls. “I changed my major from psychology to speech pathology the start of the very next semester, and I’ve never looked back.”
On January 1, Geitner was promoted to CEO of Heritage Christian Services, a nonprofit agency based in East Rochester, N.Y., that supports 1,700 children and adults with disabilities. A 20-year employee, the former executive vice president and chief operating officer succeeded the agency’s founder, providing an added motivation to protect a rich legacy of providing support with compassion, dignity, and respect.
“It means so much to me to be able to lead with the heart of a mother and the wit and the brain of a businesswoman,” says the mother of two from Bristol, Ontario County.
Geitner has been lauded for her work at the agency. She received one of Rochester Business Journal’s Forty under 40 awards in 2007—the same year the Pieters Family Life Center, what she considers her greatest professional accomplishment, opened in Henrietta.
With consultation from Shirley Szekeres, Ph.D., dean of Nazareth’s School of Health and Human Services, Geitner helped design and develop the state-of-the-art community wellness center that welcomes people of all abilities to its fitness room, therapy pool, and studios for art, dance, and music. In 2011, she was nominated by the Rochester Business Alliance’s Women’s Council for an Athena Award. When off the job, she serves on the boards of four other philanthropic organizations.
In her new position at Heritage Christian Services, Geitner plans to develop additional programs that can help the agency move forward in a sustainable way, given the current redesign of the state’s Medicaid program. The agency has a 466-person waiting list, and “this is the first time ever that a generation of people with developmental disabilities are outliving their caretakers,” says Geitner. “The need is incredibly overwhelming.”
To this day, Geitner talks to new employees about the interdisciplinary experience she received at Nazareth, one that nurtured a passion for independent learning.
“I wasn’t a great student until I really understood what I wanted to do,” says Geitner, now an adjunct professor at the College, teaching the graduate seminar in developmental disabilities. “It’s really been a full-circle experience for me.”
Read more alumni profiles at alumni.naz.edu
Robin L. Flanigan is a freelance writer in Rochester, New York.