Foss: Celebrate those who make Schenectady a better place

Resident Peter McKee speaks about living at the YMCA on Broadway.
Resident Peter McKee speaks about living at the YMCA on Broadway.

Shortly before Christmas, I spent some time at 845 Commons, a four-story, 155-unit apartment building that houses needy men. 

I had toured the Schenectady facility once before, and been impressed with the size of the operation, which is run by the Capital District YMCA, and the range of services for residents, many of whom struggle with physical and mental disabilities. 

What struck me the most, though, was this simple fact: Nearly half of the men who call 845 Commons home are military veterans. 

“I love it here,” 69-year-old Peter McKee, who served in the Army from 1968 to 1972, told me. “The Y gave me counseling, and I gave up drinking, smoking and gambling, which had been plaguing me for years.” 

McKee, who was forced to leave his parents’ home in Scotia after they died, has been residing in a YMCA facility for the last 11 years. He first moved into the now shuttered State Street location, then relocated into 845 Commons when it first opened in 2014.

Like many YMCA residents, he has no plans to leave a place that provides him with meals, free laundry, his own bathroom and other support.

“There’s a demand for housing for military veterans,” he said. “Not everybody has a home to come to after they get out of the service.” 

I hope to write more about the good work the YMCA is doing to keep indigent men off the streets and out of emergency shelters in the coming year. The men I met at 845 Commons need help meeting basic needs, and the YMCA provides it. 

I mention the organization now to celebrate them as one of the many non-profits and grassroots, volunteer-driven groups working hard to make Schenectady a better place. 

As the year draws to a close, I’d like to take a moment to salute some of the local organizations — and people — that graciously allowed me to spend time with them and document their efforts to make a difference. They include: 

Schenectady resident Mike Davis, who took over the Schenectady/Belmont Pop Warner football program with the goal of energizing a program that has served countless youth but also struggled to recruit volunteers and meet expenses. 

Davis’ passion for Pop Warner is infectious, and his desire to use sports to teach teamwork and good habits is inspiring. Running a youth sports program is hard work under the best of circumstances. Davis does it under conditions that are far from ideal. 

— The Schenectady non-profit organization Community Fathers runs a variety of programs that help men become better parents, with the goal of strengthening a community where single-parent households are all too common. 

One of Community Fathers’ core programs is a support group for men where participants bare their souls, speaking openly about substance abuse, poverty and feelings of despair. The conversations are difficult, but an important part of teaching men to approach life in a new, more positive way. 

Observing the Community Fathers’ support group was one of the highlights of my year, in part because of the organization’s deep and sincere belief that no one is beyond hope or redemption. 

— The brainchild of Union College professor Carol Weisse, the CARE (Community Action Research and Education) program sends college students to volunteer in residential homes for the dying, which provide free, round-the-clock bedside care to terminally ill patients whose families are unable to care for them. 

The CARE students I met volunteered at the Joan Nicole Prince Home in Scotia, where they provided companionship, gave bed baths and did whatever they could to make patients’ final days more comfortable and meaningful. 

This is vital work, and the CARE program deserves praise for teaching college students to treat dying people with dignity and respect. I shouldn’t neglect the Joan Nicole Prince Home, which is a treasure — a pleasant, caring and selfless organization that deserves to be better known. 

– Angela and Elroy Tatem are a Schenectady couple who teach people how to manage their money better, in hopes of improving the overall financial health of a city where the median household income, $44,826, is much lower than that of the surrounding county, $63,785. 

I sat in on the Tatem’s five session Money Matters “boot camp,” which focuses on budgeting, saving money, paying off debt and investing. I learned a lot from it, and I wasn’t alone: One participant told me that it had changed her life by ending the cycle of earning money, spending it and feeling broke. 

– The City Mission and Bethesda House, two long-standing Schenectady anti-poverty organizations, have both expanded their mission to include helping the poor obtain health care. 

They’ve created innovative new programs that recognize that people who are struggling with untreated health problems will also struggle to get back on their feet and live independently, and that connecting this population to health providers can make it possible for them to lead more productive lives. 

Among other things, the City Mission employs health ambassadors who go out into the community, look for people at places like bus stops, libraries and barbershops and ask whether they might need to see a doctor. 

Bethesda House runs a small, on-site clinic where patients can see a nurse or physician. The goal is to keep people out of the emergency room and get them to better manage their mental and physical health. We all benefit when people take care of themselves, and with any luck these promising initiatives will continue to grow. 

I could go on and on about all the groups and people that did good work in the community in 2019, but my time and space is finite.

I’ll simply add that I spend a lot of time writing about Schenectady’s problems, which is why I enjoy shining a light on those working hard to uplift the wider community. These efforts are reason to be upbeat about the future — and to envision a better world for people from all walks of life. 

Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. 

Categories: News, Opinion, Schenectady County

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