November 26, 2021

Pizzola a champion for people with disabilities

Cortland woman who helped remove obstacles for many dies at 57

While sledding under a bright blue sky as a student at SUNY Cobleskill in December 1981, Fran Pizzola of Cortland broke her neck and was paralyzed. The accident changed her life and would eventually change the lives of many people in the greater Cortland area.

“I wanted to be a research scientist and work in a lab,” she recalled in January 2018. “But this was my fate. God had other plans for me.”

Pizzola, 57, died Friday at Crouse Hospital in Syracuse after a brief illness.

After her accident, she became an advocate for people with physical and mental disabilities and worked for Cortland County Access to Independence as its founder, first volunteer staff member and later a paid employee.

She was a longtime community education coordinator, but most recently worked as a peer adviser with the peer transition team after returning following a departure of about a year and a half.

Eden Harrington-Hall, director of consumer-directed services of the Cortland County Community Action Programs and a board member of Access to Independence, worked with Pizzola for about 27 years.

“I am heartbroken,” Harrington-Hall said Monday. “She touched many, many lives. If it weren’t for her, I don’t know if Access to Independence would be here.”

From experience using a wheelchair, Pizzola learned how difficult it was to do many daily activities and she worked with businesses, governments and other groups to remove barriers.

“There are so many obstacles,” Harrington-Hall said. “I don’t think people realize all of the obstacles for people in wheelchairs or with visual impairments.”

Aaron Baier, executive director of Access to Independence, worked with Pizzola since joining the organization 13 years ago, but he met her a year and a half earlier while he attended SUNY Cortland.

“She was very kind,” Baier said. “She always had a demanding presence. … She was not shy. She had kind words for people. She was very much into building relationships.”

Baier, who is blind, said Pizzola was very supportive when he was in college.

“We, as people, are stronger advocates for the independence we want and we deserve,” he said.

The roots of Access to Independence date to 1986 as a grassroots advocacy organization. Several human service agencies, government officials and others saw a lack of physical accessibility in the county.

They formed the Cortland County Accessibility Committee under CAPCO, the local community action program. The group secured state funding and Fran Pizzola became the volunteer coordinator, working out of a single room in the Cortland County Office Building.

Cortland County Access to Independence was formed in 1997 as a satellite of the Ithaca-based Finger Lakes Independence Center. In May 1998, Access to Independence of Cortland County incorporated as a nonprofit organization.

In her latest roll with the organization, Pizzola worked with people in nursing homes.

“She was helping people to get out of nursing homes to get back to their own houses and live on their own terms,” Harrington-Hall said.

Pizzola’s survivors include her mother, Carmela Testa Pizzola; fiancé, Paul Dudek; brother, Michael (Mika) Pizzola and sister Maria (Mike) Dafoe; and four nieces.

Her family will receive friends from 4 to 8 p.m. today at St. Anthony’s Church on Pomeroy Street in Cortland. A funeral Mass is 10:30 a.m. Wednesday at St. Anthony’s Church.