By Tracy Ormsbee
Tupper Lake has a real champion in Ellen Maroun.
When the longtime community activist looks around the town of almost 6,000, she sees only promise: businesses moving into the downtown; two new craft breweries; a new arts center, Tupper Arts; the Wild Center; the Sky Center; dilapidated buildings finally torn down and new standards applied.
She’s had a hand in some of the improvements, too.
As adviser to her brother’s fund, the Alfred M. Aseel Legacy Fund, she is supporting the Tupper Lake Heritage Trail, which will mark historic sites to celebrate Tupper’s rich history, including the immigrant families who settled there like the Lebanese population of which Maroun and her husband, Camil (J.J.) are a part.
Beginning in the mid-’60s, Maroun advocated for—and successfully brought—services to the area for the developmentally disabled.
And, she says, the town doesn’t need to give anything away to the Adirondack Club and Resort to guarantee its renewal.
“We’ll save ourselves by setting standards, setting goals,” she says. “Never hand your future over to anybody.”
Maroun maintains a decidedly positive outlook and peppers adages like that one throughout her conversation:
“I’m not one to hang out in the past, but I do honor it,” she says.
Or “Life is simple. You have two choices: I can sink or learn to swim. I like the water better.”
Or “You get back what you give out to the universe.”
She knows the potential for Tupper because she remembers as a girl having to step aside because so many people were walking downtown. Her father, Alfred Aseel, who peddled through the Adirondacks, especially to lumber camps, owned Aseel Jewelers in Tupper Lake. Her husband’s family owned the well-known Camil A. Maroun Dry Goods store.
“It was a flourishing community,” she says.
Later, when she had her own three children—her middle daughter, Gina, severely disabled—she founded the Franklin County Association for Retarded Children.
At that time, the standard of care was to place your child in an institution, and no services existed outside of those options, Maroun says.
The best thing you can do, parents were told, is step away and forget it.
“My best way was to step in and change it,” Maroun says.
When Gina was 8, her parents would pick her up from Sunmount Developmental Center on Friday and bring her home for the weekend, even if the staff regularly discouraged it. That was the thinking of the time, Maroun says.
Maroun went through some dark, “why me?” years, she says, but they brightened when she found a way to make a change. She became assistant to local psychiatrist Georges Reding, where she learned a lot, and then met Tom Coughlin, who started the Jefferson County ARC and was the first executive director of the office of disabilities. He became her mentor, teaching her how and what to do to petition the county for services.
“I’m a big believer we are placed here and have a responsibility to live up to,” she says. “Tom knew the steps I needed to take; he’d done it in Jefferson County.”
She started the first community residential homes in Franklin County and was the first parent to serve on the board of Sunmount while Gina was there. “My role was to define reasonable expectations and to expect them—and figure out how to make them happen.”
She later served on the Governor’s Advisory Council to the Office for People with Developmental Disabilities and was a regional vice president of the New York State Association for Retarded Citizens. She wrote the bill of rights for people in community residence settings, which became law.
All of this set her up for future board work and volunteerism. She went on to work with traumatic brain injury and chaired the Healthcare Association for New York State. She served on the Franklin County Community Services Board, and the Adirondack Medical Center Board. She still serves as a surrogate decision maker for New York State ARC.
“That’s the nature of advocacy, there’s always something that needs to be done,” she says.
These days she is stepping away from boards, but is a Mercy Care friendship volunteer and involved in the community through her brother’s legacy fund, established to honor the memory of Alfred’s parents Alfred Abraham and Fadwa Khechen Aseel. It awards grants to sustainable projects that will enhance and improve the Tupper Lake community and lifestyle of its residents. It also includes a scholarship for adults no longer in the school system, but wishing to “reinvent” their future.
Editor’s note: This first appeared in the Jan/Feb 2019 issue of Adirondack Explorer. Click here to subscribe.