SCHENECTADY — The next time you see Judy Atchinson, blink twice and you may miss her.
Atchinson, who has long run the Quest afterschool program, is the owner of a new Mazda X-5 Miata after being dubbed a “Mazda Hero” by the car manufacturer.
The award is part of a nationwide initiative by Mazda North American Operations (MNAO) designed to highlight leaders who have “tirelessly dedicated themselves to their communities” this year.
Atchinson took her first cruise on Sunday, zipping around the city’s Hamilton Hill neighborhood, home to many of the children she serves, and sounding the horn.
“I was afraid to drive it,” Atchinson said. “It made me feel 30 again.”
Everyone wanted to get a glimpse of her new ride, which is a 100th Anniversary Special Edition.
“They’re my family.”
Atchinson, 78, has run Quest for over 30 years, catering to the city’s most in-need youth, those grappling with numerous challenges: poverty, family dysfunction and parents with substance abuse issues.
“Most of our children don’t have beds, they sleep on floors,” Atchinson said. “Their parents are drug users – you could not see that and not want to do something.”
She picks up kids and brings them to Quest’s State Street headquarters, where they’re met with food and activities, including dance classes.
“We’re giving away tons of food on a daily basis,” Atchinson said. “I drive and deliver food, I drive and deliver children.”
One winner was tapped in each state for the program.
Other recipients ranged from young adults creating free grocery delivery services for those at high-risk of contracting the coronavirus to people partnering with restaurants to provide free meals to healthcare workers and musicians creating curbside concerts for seniors, according to Mazda.
“We hope through Mazda’s acknowledgment of their efforts, they’ll feel empowered to continue to give back to those around them,” said MNAO President Jeff Guyton in a released statement.
Atchinson was nominated by her daughter.
Naturally, she plans on taking kids for a spin, but will have to do so one-by-one because the Mazda is a two-seater.
Atchinson has been with Quest for decades after leaving her job as an artist-in-residence at Skidmore College until 1995, a move she credits to the late city priest Michael Hogan.
“There was just something there that needed to be done,” Atchinson said.
While the pandemic has forced her to reduce the number of kids she serves daily — the groups are smaller — she’s still running strong, not only helping children, but waging war against urban ills, including blight, drug abuse and other illicit activity.
Her current project: Picking up 300 toys to distribute during the holidays.
The organization depends on donations and volunteers, whom the executive director credited for the program’s longevity.
Atchinson on Monday recalled stories of people she’s helped over the years, often in heartbreaking detail.
Kids with lice. Kids stuffed into cheap motel rooms. Kids in other gloomy situations.
“I’m a witness for their lives,” said Atchinson, choking up. “It’s been a long hard road.”