Peekskill Herald

Peekskill Herald

Peekskill Herald

Maria Coto’s infectious charisma for life recalled by her co-workers


Petite in stature, but supersized in personality, Maria Coto was the life of the office, said her co-workers in interviews on Monday. 

Maria, a 56 year-old social worker, died on June 19 from injuries she sustained on May 14 when she went to visit a client at an apartment in Peekskill.  

“She brought happiness, laughter, singing, and fashion to the office,” recalled Dayanara Lizarra who worked with her for a dozen years. “We were friends inside and outside the office,” explaining how she and her daughter and three other friends celebrated Easter at Maria’s new home in Danbury, Ct. which she had moved to at the beginning of March. 

“Maria would celebrate anything,” said Jefferson Romero who also worked with her for 12 years. “She was known for her style. There will never be another Maria, she had a great heart. It was unimaginable that she was only  4’8” tall because of her penchant for high heels. Maria would sometimes accompany 6 foot tall Romero on home visits when he needed help with Spanish-speaking clients.

He remembered how everyday at 4 P.M. Maria would start singing at her desk, usually off key, letting people in her unit know that it was an hour before 5 when their day officially ended. “It sounded like cats screeching most of the time, since she couldn’t carry a tune, but it didn’t deter her,” said Romero. 

One recent Christmas, each unit in the DSS building decorated their section. Here, Maria is dressed up for her section’s Grinch theme. (Photo courtesy of Patricia Lambert)

She was a fashionista who would “wear a Burberry coat looking like Inspector Gadget” said Romero. She had all the Louis Vuitton accessories; phone case, car keys, water bottle, purse and wallet and Chanel sunglasses,” remembered her fellow social workers. 

Maria, who came to Yonkers from El Salvador when she was in her early teens, had a desire to go back to the country she hadn’t visited since she left as a youth. “She wanted to travel. She talked about going south when she retired in a few years,” said her friend Patricia Lambert.

“She left her mark,” Elizabeth Akinleye said. She was elegant and loved life. She loved restaurants and eating out and fine wines. And Starbucks was her favorite place to stop for a coffee. “Maria was a shopaholic but she was so generous with her clothes. She frequently would go through her closet and give me designer suits and bags to give to my granddaughter,” recalled Akinleye. 

Maria was one to always lift the spirits of co-workers with hilarious antics. (Photo courtesy of Patricia Lambert).

Akinleye recalled a time when a client who was a victim of domestic violence came into the office and had a daughter with her. Having left their home with just the clothes on their backs, Akinleye mentioned it to Maria. The next day Maria showed up to work with shopping bags filled with pajamas, underwear, and outfits for the woman’s daughter. “And she would frequently ask me how the mother and daughter were doing,” said Akinleye.

Maria’s outsized personality extended to more than co-workers; her clients and those she encountered through volunteering with the county’s Diaper Bank remember her compassion and authentic caring for them. “She gave me her personal cell number, and told me to call her when I needed to talk,” said one woman who was a new mother and struggling with the adjustment. “She was a truly caring, loving person.”  When clients learned of the attack, Akinleye said they were calling the office crying saying “Please tell me it’s not Maria,” They were bereft saying “who are we going to call,” because she had become like family to clients. 

“Every life she touched, she changed. She had a charisma that welcomed everybody,” said Elizabeth MacDonald, another social worker who knew her. 

“Maria loved life, she was funny, hilarious” and knew how to have fun, said Lambert who attended a Halloween party Maria hosted last October. She remembered the time Maria threw a pajama party at her apartment near Poughkeepsie. “There were five of us and it was during a snowstorm.” One time Maria and some friends took a Halloween boat ride, “Maria was Alice in Wonderland” that year, remembered Lambert. 

Maria Coto, in the middle, on a recent Halloween. (Photo courtesy of Patricia Lambert)

Oh and the birthday celebrations. When it was time to acknowledge someone’s birthday, she would take them to dinner. And Maria celebrated her last September 22 birthday with a sushi dinner and friends came back to her place for dessert. “There’s video of that,” said Lambert. “She loved celebrating life.” 

Maria loved to celebrate any occasion and here she’s being honored on her birthday. (Photo courtesy of Patricia Lambert)

There’s a certain irony to these reflections about Maria from her Peekskill colleagues, for she had transferred out of the Child Welfare Division at the Peekskill office of the Department of Social Services (DSS) office about five weeks ago. She set up her desk in the White Plains office and was assigned to a Housing unit. Her territory was the YMCA in Yonkers and Peekskill. 

On May 14, Maria came from White Plains, did a home visit in Peekskill and then picked up her friend Dayanara at the Peekskill office so they could go to lunch together before visiting her client at 900 South Street. She and Dayanara ate at Taormina on Hudson Avenue where they talked about their lives, ‘giving advice’ to each other. It was a beautiful spring day, Dayanara recalls. Maria dropped Dayanara off at the DSS office so she could go to her client visit. 

Colleagues laughingly recalled Maria as a diva (‘she never had a bad hair day’) but she was humble, kind, compassionate and caring. And she was honest, recalled her co-workers. She could be very blunt, said Lambert. “If she didn’t like an outfit you were wearing,” she’d make a joke about it. She was very fashion conscious, even to the point of dressing up her mini-golden doodle dog Bailey, named after the Irish Creme. “Bailey had a Burberry coat” also, said Romero. Bailey died on Christmas Day and it was tough for Maria, remembered her friends.  

In these images, Maria is showing off the earrings that her friend Patricia Lambert made for her.

Maria died at 5 A.M. on Wednesday June 19. The DSS offices were closed in observance of Juneteenth. Elizabeth Akinleye remembers waking up at 5:10 that morning from a vivid dream where Maria was outside a courtyard, similar in shape to the courtyard area at the DSS building on Washington Street and there was turquoise water nearby.  In the dream, Maria was wearing a brilliant blue dress, with her black waist-length hair flowing behind her. She was laughing and floating up to the clouds. 

When Elizabeth awoke from the dream, she didn’t remember at first that Maria was injured and in the hospital for 37 days. She just saw Maria for the free spirit she was. It wasn’t until Elizabeth received a call from a colleague a bit later that she learned Maria had slipped into death earlier that morning and the dream came flooding back to her.   

That dream wasn’t so far-fetched, believes Elizabeth. She knew Maria to be a person of deep faith. When Maria was working late, which would be frequently, she would come by Elizabeth’s office and they would talk about her faith. “She loved the Lord, was always thankful and she believed in the Lord. She knew she was a child of  God.” 

Two days before she was attacked, Maria visited the Yonkers grave of her mom. It was Mother’s Day and she wrote on her Facebook page: Happy Mother’s Day Mom, I love you and remember you always.  

Image from Maria’s Facebook page on Mother’s Day.

Now, Maria’s colleagues remember her: they’ve created a memorial in one corner in the Child Welfare unit of the DSS building.. “Out of all the county offices, we’re the smallest,” said Dayanara Lizarra, “and we’re close to each other.” There are about 40 people working in the unit that Maria called home for the past twelve years. 

A hairbrush, a nod to Maria’s fashion sense, at the DSS memorial to her. Sitting atop of it is a note paper where a colleague can fill in adjectives describing Maria. (Photo by Regina Clarkin)

A ribbon which adorned the standing flower display from the funeral home drapes a photo of her –  Beloved Maria Peekskill District Office it reads. How beloved she was is evident in the adjectives used to describe her: music lover, active, radiant, angel, awesome, incredible, marvelous, admirable, authentic. There are flowers and cards. A nearby table has some food, another way of comforting co-workers who are still attempting to process the trauma around losing a friend and colleague in such a violent manner. 

Maria loved life and her giant personality will continue to enrich the lives of those who encountered her.   


About the Contributor
Regina Clarkin
Regina Clarkin, Editor and Publisher
When the Peekskill Herald weekly newspaper ceased publishing in August 2000 it was the first time in the history of the city that there wasn’t a local newspaper.  The award-winning weekly was often referred to as the ‘glue’ of the community. Founded on January 9, 1986 by Regina Clarkin, Kathy Daley and Rich Zahradnik with a $7,000 credit card line, the paper filled the void created when the daily Evening Star was sold to Gannett and moved out of town. Founding publisher Regina Clarkin continued to live in the Peekskill Cortlandt area and turned her attention to other life endeavors.  Through the ensuing 19 years, Clarkin was frequently stopped in town and asked when she would start up the Herald again. In January 2019, Clarkin decided it was less labor intensive to deliver a weekly blog than a print newspaper so she began posting one story a week about life in Peekskill. After a successful crowd funding campaign in 2020, the Herald was incorporated as a non-profit corporation in July of 2021. Peekskill Herald is a digital relative of the former print edition, featuring many of the favorite aspects of the beloved Peekskill Herald such as old pictures, personality profiles and well written stories about newsworthy events. Regina Clarkin is the editor and publisher of the site. Photo by Joe Squillante