Michelle Paige Paterson, first lady of the State of New York, is a woman who is more than the eye can behold. Charming and gracious, she is also articulate, focused, warm and open as she shared stories of her youth and passion for health and physical fitness. Taking time out of her busy schedule to meet with the Amsterdam News, she admits, “I believe I am the first first lady of the state who has held a full-time job while also attending to its duties and social obligations.”
Growing up in a rural section of Staten Island surrounded by ponds and wild fields, and spending summers in Georgia on the family farm, the first lady’s formative years were spent getting in touch with nature and all of its beauty, which is reflected in her style and manner. While she didn’t know it at the time, she admits, this was preparing her for her life’s destiny on this planet, which is “helping people develop healthy lifestyles.”
Her working career began jumping from one field to the next, from publishing and advertising, to an administrative assistant in investment banking, to decorating. “You name it, I did it,” she states. It wasn’t until after having her son, Alex, and him turning 3 years old that she decided to go back to school for a master’s in health policy and management.
“I am a very spiritual person,” Michelle proclaims, “so I had to ask God what was best for me because what I was choosing wasn’t working.”
Well, that finally worked for her, as upon graduating she obtained a job with North General Hospital working on Integrated Wellness. There she learned that “healing is not only physical but much more, you also need to incorporate the body and the mind.”
As first lady, she receives requests for appearances and over 200 speaking engagements a month, but selects only those connected with health and nutrition, and ones that will compliment her professional work, as her biggest responsibility is “juggling everything,” she states with a smile, “but being organized and having a great staff helps immensely.”
The Healthy Steps Initiative is one upon which she is exceedingly proud. It began upstate with over 26,000 middle school children from Syracuse, Rochester, Albany, Buffalo and Yonkers. Collectively amongst the schools, children from grades 6-8 were divided into teams. The goal was to take 4 million steps. The first team to reach the goal received a healthy meal at the governor’s mansion in Albany with the governor and first lady, and a trip to an organic farm. Rapper Melle Mel wrote a rap song about healthy eating to pep the kids up while AIG provided the children with pedometers, and off they went.
“I thought it would be hard to get the kids involved, that they would think it was boring,” Paterson stated, “but instead they liked the attention and not only did they get involved, but so did the parents,” she continued.
The program was met with such success that the initiative will come to the five boroughs and is set for a March 1 kickoff. To date, over 500,000 middle school children will participate. Proud of the program’s accomplishments, the first lady states, “Middle school children are often dealing with issues and they don’t know how to articulate their feelings.”
The aim is to give them a healthier lifestyle that will sustain them through this period into adulthood. While the downstate program is too comprehensive to measure actual steps taken, it has been modified to include a website component to measure the distance and provide activities to get the whole family involved. The website will also be used to expand the Healthy Steps Initiative globally throughout the Middle East, Spain and Holland, enabling the children to interact with one another, introduce customs, experience travel and become more global.
Studies reveal that one in three children at the ages of 3 and 4 are overweight, have diabetes and/or heart disease. “We are raising children who have no chance at life and may not outlive the older generation,” Paterson sadly stated. As first lady, she strives to change these statistics.
At home, she spends time with her son, Alex, a sophomore in High School and daughter, Ashley, a senior in college, who has made the dean’s list and plans to spend some time in Ghana to complete her international studies. The first lady and the governor spend leisure time (if there is any) socializing with close friends and family.
In conclusion, she advises to “take some time for yourself,” and remember, “You have to push yourself out of your comfort zone in order to grow.”