City Mission Ambassador Program Offers New Opportunities – The Daily Gazette

SCHENECTADY — Eddie Polanco never imagined he would have a meaningful life while he was in prison and out of various rehab programs over the course of several years.

Homeless, Polanco’s life was confined to a city block, where he spent days without speaking to anyone. The few times someone acknowledged his existence, Polanco would look around to make sure he was speaking to him before clearing the buildup of phlegm lodged in his throat so he could respond.

“Everything that happened was on that block,” he said. “It was all just criminal activity.”

Polanco was eventually sent to a drug treatment program at Schenectady’s City Mission, where he believed he would simply pass as he had in the many previous programs.

But more than a decade later, not only is Polanco sober, but he now works full-time for the city’s mission doing outreach, where he interacts daily with people facing circumstances similar to his own.

“They saw someone who could turn things around,” Polanco said. “They saw so much more in me than I was seeing.”

As part of its rehabilitation, Polanco joined the City Mission ambassador program shortly after its launch in 2009.

The program was created as a way to provide professional hospitality training to those who use City Mission services while meeting the growing needs of visitors drawn to the city’s downtown core by ongoing redevelopment efforts.

Wearing red hats and matching shirts, Ambassadors are posted at the entrance to the Proctors Theater for each show and can be spotted strolling around the city center, providing visitors with instructions and recommendations on things to do. do several times a week.

The program has since expanded to include the Schenectady Greenmarket, and ambassadors have been invited to work on events sponsored by the city and the Schenectady County Metroplex Development Authority, according to Michael Saccocio, executive director of the City Mission.

Over the years, the city and the Metroplex have turned to the Ambassadors for advice on how to make downtown a more welcoming place for everyone, which Polanco and Saccocio said is unique to the program.

Polanco recalled interrupting Mayor Gary McCarthy at a meeting several years ago where officials were discussing how to divert people seeking money to buy food to programs that would not only feed them. , but would help put them on the path to permanent stability.

“I never thought coming in that I would be sitting with the mayor, the sheriff’s department, Metroplex, and being part of the decision-making table where my opinion mattered.” said Polanco. “Whenever there were problems downtown and they wanted to brainstorm and come up with ideas, they would bring in people like me and call us experts.”

A brochure consisting of the addresses and phone numbers of various non-profit organizations that distribute free meals was eventually created and distributed to local businesses for distribution.

“It’s about taking something that some communities view as negative and turning it into a positive,” McCarthy said of the program.

Saccocio agreed, noting that the program allows individuals to be seen as equals – a simple, yet often overlooked desire for many who use City Mission’s various services.

He estimates that more than 120 people have “graduated” from the program, finding permanent employment and housing thanks to the skills and connections they have gained while working as an ambassador.

“I think what’s unique about it is really seeing ambassadors not just as a welcoming service, but as people with great experience who would help make things better,” Saccocio said.

In 2013, the program expanded to Albany after the Interfaith Partnership for the Homeless saw the success of the program and contacted them. Saccocio said he has responded to similar calls from municipalities across the country.

Ambassadors in Albany work at the gates of the Capital Repertory Theatre, Park Playhouse and Palace Theater, and discussions are underway to extend service to the downtown business district, according to Ambassador Program Director Shahmeeka Chaney-Artis. of HPI.

A total of 49 people have participated in the Albany program since its inception. Nineteen have found permanent employment and 23 have obtained permanent accommodation, according to data provided by the organization.

At the end of 2020, the City Mission and IPH formed an ongoing working relationship to further expand the program. Work is underway to create transportation options for ambassadors and the hope is to eventually have people traveling between the two cities for work.

“This program has given me a lot of confidence to do a lot of things that I’ve never done before,” said Kenny Hicks, Albany ambassador since 2015.

“There are times when it gets a little frustrating, but I talk to my supervisor and my colleagues,” he said. “They helped me get through the day normally, just like anyone else.”

Meanwhile, at Schenectady, Ambassador Serena Radez held back tears as she explained the impact the program has had on her life.

She lived at City’s Mission women’s shelter for about a year and held several jobs as a hairdresser and employee at the Mission thrift store in Glenville.

When the pandemic took hold, Radez was quarantined until she could get vaccinated. She was asked to become an ambassador earlier this year, a job she quickly accepted and credited with changing her life.

She now oversees the City Mission’s clothing closet, where she helps people in need pick out new clothes, and works as an ambassador five days a week.

Radez remembers taking her son on one of her downtown tours earlier this month, where she stopped to talk with a number of people for an hour.

“He told me he was proud of me,” she said. “My family, they’ve seen pictures and stuff too, and they’re so proud of how far I’ve come.”

Contact journalist Chad Arnold at: 518-410-5117 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @ChadGArnold.

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Categories: News, Schenectady, Schenectady County

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