Board of Directors & Advisory Board

Board of Directors

Debra A. Benn, Treasurer

Debra Benn is the branch manager at Ulster Savings Bank, with 15 years of banking experience and six years of board and committee participation. From 2013-2016, she served as a board member/secretary for the Phoenicia Rotary and was a member of the Phoenicia Business Association. After transferring to the Woodstock branch of USB in 2017, she became a board member for the Woodstock Chamber of Commerce and Arts and the Good Neighbor Food Pantry of Woodstock. Benn is also currently on the new members committee for the Ulster County Chamber of Commerce. With a strong compassion for people and life, she looks forward to contributing her talents to CFD.

Jen Dragon, Secretary

Although Jen’s background is in Fine Arts, she has been engaged with Digital Marketing as a business entrepreneur, a community volunteer and as a long-time end-user. She understands the importance of teamwork and collective creativity to reach the end goal of business growth and success. Cross Contemporary Art is Jen’s fine arts gallery in the heart of the historic village of Saugerties. She works with mid-career and established artists who have exhibited internationally and often have their art represented in museum collections. Her gallery’s mission is to be a venue for artwork that created in the Hudson Valley, Catskills, and New York City regions. Jen is also currently a board member of the Saugerties Area Chamber of Commerce, and Social Media Manager of Ulster County Women’s Network and Saugerties Farmers Market.

William Gooch, MD

Dr. William Gooch, MD, is a retired neurologist whose 30-year practice was based in Kingston, NY. After earning a BA degree from Plattsburgh State University, Bill went to Albany Medical School, where he also did his neurology residency. He served on the Board at Kingston Hospital and acted as Medical Director of Benedictine Hospital’s Acute Rehabilitation Unit. He also served as Stroke Program Director at both Benedictine and Kingston Hospitals (now merged as HealthAlliance of the Hudson Valley).

A resident of the Hudson Valley since 1988, he is invested in bringing safe and comforting end-of-life care to people in need. His commitment comes from the intimate experience of his wife’s at-home death when she succumbed to cancer, something he recognized few people could manage. Bill was able to stop working and take care of her until the end. Providing a home-like situation for those who have no such alternative is his personal goal.

Gary Heckelman

Gary is a real estate agent with a real passion to work with non-profit organizations to build caring and inclusive communities. While living in his native New York City, Gary worked for many years as a director of a program for homeless, chronically mentally ill adults. He relocated to the Hudson Valley 25 years ago with his wife Naomi to raise their two children. Gary became active in Habitat for Humanity’s flood relief effort following tropical storm Irene that devastated several Catskill areas. He served on the Board of Habitat until undertaking the development and operation of a new Habitat center and ReStore. Gary previously co-created Inquiring Minds Bookstore, and independent bookstore in Saugerties and New Paltz, NY, that continues to serve as a literary mainstay in our greater community. He is also a lifelong artist who has enjoyed sculpting, painting, and printmaking.

Randy Rissman, MD

Dr. Randall Rissman is a family medicine doctor in Woodstock, New York and is affiliated with multiple hospitals in the area, including Health Alliance Hospital-Broadway Campus and Health Alliance Hosptial-Mary’s Avenue Campus. He received his medical degree from University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine and has been in practice for more than 20 years.

JoAnna Scari, Vice Chair 

JoAnna (Scari) Scaramuzzo serves as a Funeral Celebrant, Home Funeral Guide, Death Midwife, and is a member of the National Home Funeral Alliance (NHFA). Jo holds a degree in Global and Professional Studies from Marist College, a hybrid study of Organization Leadership & Communications Management. She joined the CFD team in 2015 and is a loyal and dedicated volunteer. Jo holds a Degree in Mortuary Science and Funeral Service from the American Academy McAllister Institute and was recognized with an award in Clinical Embalming. She has directed a variety of funeral services from conventional burial to Military Honors at a National Cemetery. Jo is guided by her beliefs and, as an experienced mortician, aims to be available with guidance and information to help people through the pragmatic aspects of planning a funeral service, while also supporting their emotional journeys in grief and acceptance of mortality.

Lisa Wilson

Lisa Wilson is the Executive Director of Hudson Valley Hospice Foundation, responsible for the Foundation’s mission to raise awareness and funding in support of the programs and services offered by Hudson Valley Hospice. Always inspired by her mother and grandmother, Lisa doesn’t remember a time when she wasn’t involved with non-profits. She has spent the past thirteen years working with and serving on a number of Boards in the Hudson Valley and is also currently a Board Member of the Community Foundations of Hudson Valley, Dutchess County Advisory Board. Prior to that, she spent over 20 years in finance, serving as the Director of Operations for a financial services company. She and her husband Curt reside in Pleasant Valley, New York.

While CFD is just over seven years old, its co-founders bring nearly a century of involvement in the issues of hospice care, dying, and death.

Laurie Schwartz, MA, Co-Founder and Chair

Laurie Schwartz is a co-founder of Circle of Friends for the Dying. She is one of the early leaders of the hospice movement in the United States. In 1979, she co-founded and directed what is now Hudson Valley Hospice and was recognized in 1995 by Hudson Valley Hospice and ARCS as a dynamic visionary and social activist. She has trained hundreds of people in the arena of dying, death, and bereavement through Hudson Valley Hospice’s volunteer trainings and through Securelanding programs. Laurie co-founded Community Possibilities in 1984 (which assisted community leaders in forming their desire into vision and then into action) and the Woodstock Jewish Congregation in 1986. She has served on numerous Boards of Directors, held positions of administration, and worked as a trainer/facilitator. In 2018 Laurie was again honored by Hudson Valley Hospice for her commitment and service to the community.

Elise Lark, PhD, LCSW, Founder

Elise Lark is the visionary founder of Circle of Friends for the Dying. Her passion for this project was ignited by her work as a clinical social worker at the HealthAlliance Hospital Oncology Support Program, and furthered as a member of the Palliative Care Team. These experiences led her to recognize the need for alternative end-of-life care settings in our community. Working in both the hospital and its Cancer Support House has allowed her to observe how setting influences the quality of care and relationships within, and the natural sense of ease elicited by a home environment.

These interests led Elise to return to school with the goal of investigating community-based end-of-life residences and to the discovery of the Home for the Dying care model (aka Comfort Care Home). Her research culminated with her PhD dissertation, Making Space for Dying: Portraits of Living with Dying (2014), introducing this model to the literature. Through her fieldwork, she has observed the truly wonderful healing and educational benefits of this simple but elegant care model for residents, families, lay caregivers, and the communities they serve.

Elise has been a practitioner of the healing arts throughout her adult life, specializing in traditional Oriental massage and SYNtegration Therapy, her unique blend of somatic, psychotherapeutic, and expressive modalities.

Barbara Sarah, LCSW, Co-Founder and Honorary Board Member

Barbara Sarah, co-founder of Circle of Friends for the Dying, is the founder of the Oncology Support Program at HealthAlliance Hospital in Kingston, New York. Following a breast cancer diagnosis in 1992, she left a 20-year career as a school social worker on Long Island and chose to dedicate herself to work in oncology. She is the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the NY State Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers and the NY State Governor’s Award for Innovation in Breast Cancer Education. Her work in the Hudson Valley has taught her the importance of creating a Home for the Dying. For 25 years she has been an instructor of Morita and Naikan therapies, Buddhist-based strategies for mental wellness. She is now a resident of Westchester County, organizing conversations in that community about the end of life, including Death Cafes. She will continue to participate in CFD meetings and events and work on projects supporting their mission.

Elise Lark, PhD, LCSW, Founder

Elise Lark is the visionary founder of Circle of Friends for the Dying. Her passion for this project was ignited by her work as a clinical social worker at the HealthAlliance Hospital Oncology Support Program, and furthered as a member of the Palliative Care Team. These experiences led her to recognize the need for alternative end-of-life care settings in our community. Working in both the hospital and its Cancer Support House has allowed her to observe how setting influences the quality of care and relationships within, and the natural sense of ease elicited by a home environment.

These interests led Elise to return to school with the goal of investigating community-based end-of-life residences and to the discovery of the Home for the Dying care model (aka Comfort Care Home). Her research culminated with her PhD dissertation, Making Space for Dying: Portraits of Living with Dying (2014), introducing this model to the literature. Through her fieldwork, she has observed the truly wonderful healing and educational benefits of this simple but elegant care model for residents, families, lay caregivers, and the communities they serve.

Elise has been a practitioner of the healing arts throughout her adult life, specializing in traditional Oriental massage and SYNtegration Therapy, her unique blend of somatic, psychotherapeutic, and expressive modalities.


Barbara Sarah, LCSW, Co-Founder and Honorary Board Member

Barbara Sarah, co-founder of Circle of Friends for the Dying, is the founder of the Oncology Support Program at HealthAlliance Hospital in Kingston, New York. Following a breast cancer diagnosis in 1992, she left a 20-year career as a school social worker on Long Island and chose to dedicate herself to work in oncology. She is the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the NY State Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers and the NY State Governor’s Award for Innovation in Breast Cancer Education. Her work in the Hudson Valley has taught her the importance of creating a Home for the Dying. For 25 years she has been an instructor of Morita and Naikan therapies, Buddhist-based strategies for mental wellness. She is now a resident of Westchester County, organizing conversations in that community about the end of life, including Death Cafes. She will continue to participate in CFD meetings and events and work on projects supporting their mission.


Laurie Schwartz, MA, Co-Founder and Chair

Laurie Schwartz is a co-founder and current Chair of Circle of Friends for the Dying. She is one of the early leaders of the hospice movement in the United States. In 1979, she co-founded and directed what is now Hudson Valley Hospice and was recognized in 1995 by Hudson Valley Hospice and ARCS as a dynamic visionary and social activist. She has trained hundreds of people in the arena of dying, death, and bereavement through Hudson Valley Hospice’s volunteer trainings and through Securelanding programs. Laurie co-founded Community Possibilities in 1984 (which assisted community leaders in forming their desire into vision and then into action) and the Woodstock Jewish Congregation in 1986. She has served on numerous Boards of Directors, held positions of administration, and worked as a trainer/facilitator. In 2018 Laurie was again honored by Hudson Valley Hospice for her commitment and service to the community.

Advisory Board

Carol B. Armitage, Consultant
Jimmy Buff, Radio Kingston
Rev. Lynda Elaine Carré, Wellspring Passages of Hudson Valley, NY
Hayes Clement, Berkshire Hathaway
Sasha Gillman, Co-Founder, WDST FM Radio Station, Woodstock, NY
Guy Kempe, Vice President of Community Development, RUPCO
Joshua Koplovitz, JD, Wapner Koplovitz & Futerfas
Joel Mandelbaum, MD, Hurley Avenue Family Medicine