It was through her kids that Mary Pat Alcus says she got hooked on volunteering.
When her daughter, Claire, was in fifth grade, they began doing regular service projects together with five of her friends from Norwood School in Bethesda and their moms. The girls chose what to do—from sorting at Manna Food Center in Gaithersburg to weeding at the Red Wiggler Community Farm in Germantown—and where to give their money.
After three active years with the Mother-Daughter Giving Circle, created by the Greater Washington Community Foundation in Montgomery County, Alcus wanted a similar experience for her son, Colin. She partnered with the Community Foundation to start the Kid to Kid Giving Circle at Norwood. About 40 seventh and eighth graders met after school monthly to volunteer and pool their money for charity—giving away about $10,000 in each of the two years the group existed.
“It had a massive impact on me,” Alcus says of the exposure to the county’s needs with her kids, which provided an on-ramp to more volunteering just as she was contemplating retirement. “I could see the path of a second act of service that would keep me intellectually stimulated and using my professional talents.”
In 2010, Alcus left her job at Mercer, an investment consulting firm where she had worked for 22 years. Ever since, Alcus, 60, has shared her investing expertise and held leadership positions with several organizations centered on education and disadvantaged youths. In recognition of her service, the Community Foundation of Montgomery County has named Alcus the 2023 Philanthropist of the Year.
“Mary Pat has a gift for explaining finances,” says Anna Hargrave, executive director of the Community Foundation. “She has this collaborative spirit, combined with strategic thinking, that makes her so effective at helping you figure out how do we go from great to amazing.”
At the Community Foundation, Alcus joined and ultimately chaired the local Montgomery County advisory board in addition to serving on the regional board of trustees. During her tenure, she also chaired the foundation’s investment committee and its Sharing Montgomery Grants Committee.
Alcus recalls her years growing up in Chappaqua, New York, when her mom set an example of service by working on the town council, volunteering at church and mentoring young people. “So it was pretty easy for me to figure out the kinds of things I wanted to model for my kids—and I feel confident they will, in turn, do the same thing,” she says.
In 1985, Alcus met her future husband, Darren, through mutual friends at a Mardi Gras parade in his hometown of New Orleans. They both graduated with degrees in economics—Mary Pat from Vanderbilt, Darren from Dartmouth—and got jobs in New York. They went to Duke for their MBAs and married in 1989.
The Alcuses moved to Potomac in 2002. Darren, president of corporate banking for Capital One in Bethesda, credits his wife with connecting his company and their family with volunteer opportunities. “She leads it,” Darren says. “We follow fast and willingly.”
In the nonprofit sector, Mary Pat Alcus likes to go deep by offering strategic financial advice and doing hands-on service. She says she believes in the transformational power of education and has devoted much of her time to organizations that support kids’ learning.
When Horizons Greater Washington, a nonprofit organization that operates a summer enrichment program for low-income students, needed volunteer lunch helpers at its Norwood site, Alcus stepped up. Students start the six-week academic and swim instruction program in kindergarten, and most return every year through eighth grade. Alcus became involved with Horizon’s gala and development committee and was a member of its board for six years, including two as president.
Over the past decade, the number of students Horizons serves in Montgomery County has grown from 30 to 135, according to Executive Director Mike Di Marco. Alcus has helped it expand revenue streams and set up a permanent endowment for the organization.
Alcus continually finds ways to go the extra mile, Di Marco says. For instance, in 2018, at an end-of-the-summer potluck for about 300 at which Horizons provided fried chicken and families contributed homemade Latino and Ethiopian side dishes, Alcus started a new tradition. She bought Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School T-shirts for the five program graduates who were about to start there in the fall.
“It was meant to inspire the whole community, even the youngest kids, to keep their eye on the prize,” says Alcus, who remained behind the scenes as a teacher presented the shirts to the students—who all put them on immediately to pose for a photo. “It was something they might not otherwise have had because it’s an extravagance, if money is tight … It’s a small donation that can actually have a huge impact on that child’s journey through high school to just own that shirt.”
The next year, the tradition got trickier when there were 11 students going to a variety of public and private schools in the area. But Alcus remained committed and got T-shirts for each student for their respective school that year and for years afterward.
Adds DiMarco: “This small gesture goes a long way to helping our students build a sense of belonging at a new school.”
Both of Alcus’ kids have volunteered at Horizons—Claire on the administrative side and Colin as a swim instructor for two summers during which Alcus was also a volunteer, jumping into the pool for lessons as needed. A highlight of the summer was a friendly competition among students from the three Horizons sites dubbed the Swim Olympics. The first year, the Norwood kids had fun, but when it came to the awards, Alcus says, “we got destroyed.” She and Colin were determined to work on the kids’ racing dives and teach them water polo, so the kids would be prepared.
“The next summer, we came in first by a mile. We actually destroyed the other two teams. It was to the point, we might have taken it a little too seriously,” Alcus says with a laugh, noting that the middle school students have become so advanced, some joined their school swim teams and work as lifeguards.
During the summer of 2020, when her kids were home during the early days of the pandemic, Alcus and Claire were looking for ways to help out—and get out. They signed up regularly through Community Food Rescue’s app to deliver groceries from Manna Food Center to families in the county. They took separate cars to cover more ground, dropping off food on the doorsteps (during that contactless time of COVID-19), but they were often buoyed by the glimpses of smiles and waves from the recipients, Alcus says.
In July, Alcus became board chair of the Montgomery College Foundation, where she has been a member since 2017. In addition to big-picture leadership at the community college, Alcus and her husband have supported the school’s Student Emergency Assistance Fund and various scholarships.
In 2020, Jorge Torres graduated with a degree in biology from the University of Maryland at Shady Grove (after two years at Montgomery College) thanks to a pathway scholarship from the Alcuses that covered the cost of his four-year degree. Now the 26-year-old is in his second year of dental school in Baltimore. As a first-generation college student, Torres says he especially appreciated Mary Pat’s advice and letters of encouragement.
A few years ago, the Alcuses took Torres to a Capitals hockey game along with their son, Colin, who is the same age, when the two were sophomores in college. Over a dinner of burgers at Clyde’s and the car ride to and from the arena, the couple tried to impart words of wisdom, Mary Pat recalls. “We were just trying to encourage him to keep going and let him know he had our total support,” she says.
“Their support motivated me to focus on my studies and gave me confidence,” says Torres, who hopes to practice dentistry in Montgomery County and eventually set up a scholarship for other students in need.
In mentoring children and young adults, Alcus says she wants to convey that there are endless possibilities for their lives. Her message: “Do the work and you can be whatever you want to be.”
Alcus is also known as an inspiration to other philanthropists in the community. For eight years, she served on the steering committee for The Power of Pink, a funding organization created by Karen Leder that supports breast health, including mammograms for women regardless of income. For the organization’s 10th anniversary in October 2021, Alcus
quietly raised over $30,000 to create a permanent endowment for the cause, surprising Leder with the gift at the annual luncheon. “She is really kind, thoughtful and smart,” Leder says of Alcus. “She has a natural gift to empower people to want to get involved.”
In their family, Colin and Claire say their mom created an environment in which they wanted to help others, and that has continued.
Colin, 25, who studied finance in college, says he welcomed the chance at his company in Atlanta to mentor underprivileged high school students. Claire, 27, now a medical student at the University of Miami, has been a volunteer tutor and helped kids in need navigate the college application process. She credits her mom for making volunteering fun and instilling in her an expectation to serve, even after she left Montgomery County. Adds Claire: “I realized my life didn’t feel quite as fulfilling without somehow making an effort to give back to my community.”
Stephanie Siegel Burke is a freelance writer and editor specializing in local news, arts, culture and events. She lives in Bethesda with her husband, two children and one dog.