Board of Directors & Advisory Council

Board of Directors

Susan Banks, MSW, Chair

Sue Banks has a deep interest in supporting individuals at the end of life.  She holds a clinical Social Work degree and is currently a Grant Consultant to non-profit organizations. She has practiced in psychiatric and medical hospitals, addressing end-of-life and quality-of-life decisions, and has worked with the homeless and developmental disabilities populations in her home state of Massachusetts. 

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. Debra is also currently on the new members committee for the Ulster County Chamber of Commerce.

Ann Hutton, Secretary

Ann Hutton is a free-lance writer, editor, and writing workshop facilitator here in the Hudson Valley. In her experience, language is how we create our reality. What we say—and write—literally causes reality to manifest itself. Ann has participated in causing a Home for the Dying to become a reality as a volunteer for CFD for a number of years. 

Dr. Randall Rissman, MD

Randy 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 Hospital-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.

Photo of Carolyn Van NessCarolyn Van Ness

Carolyn Van Ness is a retired women’s health nurse practitioner with experience as a medical journalist and author. Currently her priority is end-of-life education through her efforts as a death doula, Death Cafe member, and hospice volunteer.


The Co-Founders

Circle of Friends for the Dying co-founders represent a cumulative number of years—nearly 100!—of experience in the issues of hospice care, dying, and death.

Elise Lark, PhD, LCSW, APHSW-C
Founder, former Chair,
and current Board Member

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.

Laurie Schwartz, MA, Co-Founder, former Chair, Advisory Council Member

Laurie Schwartz is a co-founder and former 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.


Barbara Sarah, LCSW, Co-Founder and current 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. Barbara’s 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 was instrumental in bringing Death Cafés to Westchester County, where she organized conversations in that community about the end of life.


Advisory Council

Carol B. Armitage, Consultant
Jimmy Buff, Radio Kingston
Rev. Lynda Elaine Carré, Wellspring Passages of Hudson Valley, NY
Hayes Clement, Berkshire Hathaway
Joshua Koplovitz, JD, Wapner Koplovitz & Futerfas
Joel Mandelbaum, MD, Hurley Avenue Family Medicine
Daniel Rubenstein, Financial Executive
Laurie Schwartz, MA, Consultant
Vicki Stent, Coldwell Banker Village Green Realty

Honorary Board

Jennifer Gohlke Khan, JD

JoAnna (Scari) Scaramuzzo, former CFD Vice Chair

Stephen Wilder, former CFD Board Chair