City Mission ambassador program provides new opportunities

Ambassadors Serena Radz, left, and Eddie Palanco on State Street in Schenectady Thursday, May 12 2022.

Ambassadors Serena Radz, left, and Eddie Palanco on State Street in Schenectady Thursday, May 12 2022.

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

Homeless, Polanco’s life was confined to a city block, where he would spend days without speaking to anyone. On the few occasions someone acknowledged his existence, Polanco would look around to make sure they were in fact speaking to him before clearing the build up of phlegm lodged in his throat so he could respond.  

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

Polanco was eventually sent to a drug-treatment program at the City Mission of Schenectady, where he thought he would simply pass through like he had at the numerous programs before.   

But more than a decade later, not only is Polanco sober, he now works full-time for the City Mission doing outreach, where he interacts with individuals facing circumstances similar to his own on a daily basis.  

“They saw someone that could turn it around,” Polanco said. “They saw so much more in me that I didn’t see.”

As part of his rehabilitation, Polanco joined the City Mission’s Ambassador Program shortly after it began in 2009.

The program was created as a way to provide hospitality job training for those using City Mission services while addressing the growing needs of visitors attracted to the city’s downtown by ongoing redevelopment efforts. 

Wearing red hats and matching shirts, ambassadors are posted at the entrance at Proctors Theatre for every show, and can be spotted walking around the downtown area, providing visitors with directions and recommendations on things to do several times a week.  

The program has since expanded to include the Schenectady Greenmarket, and ambassadors have been requested to work 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, both the city and Metroplex have turned to the ambassadors seeking advice on how to make downtown a more welcoming place for everybody, something both Polanco and Saccocio said is unique to the program. 

Polanco recalled interrupting Mayor Gary McCarthy during one meeting a number of years ago where officials were discussing how to divert individuals seeking money to buy food into programs that would not only feed them, but help set them on a path towards permanent stability. 

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

A pamphlet made up of the addresses and phone numbers of various nonprofits that distribute free meals was ultimately created and distributed to local businesses for distribution.

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

Saccocio agreed, noting that the program allows individuals to be viewed as an equal — a simple, but often overlooked desire for many who utilize the City Mission’s various services.

He estimated more than 120 individuals have “graduated” from the program, finding permanent employment and housing as a result of the skills and connections they’ve acquired while working as an ambassador.  

“I think what’s unique about this is really seeing the ambassadors not simply as hospitality service, but 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 reached out. Saccocio said he has fielded similar calls from municipalities across the country.  

Ambassadors in Albany can be found working the doors at Capital Repertory Theatre, Park Playhouse and the Palace Theatre, and there are ongoing conversations to expand the service to the city’s downtown business district, according to Shahmeeka Chaney-Artis, director of IPH’s ambassador program.

A total of 49 individuals have participated in the Albany program since it started. Nineteen have found permanent employment and 23 have secured permanent housing, according to data provided by the organization. 

At the tail end of 2020, the City Mission and IPH  formed a permanent working relationship to expand the program further. Work is ongoing to create transportation options for ambassadors and the hope is to eventually have individuals travel between the two cities to work. 

“This program has given me a lot of confidence to do a lot of the things that I haven’t done before,” said Kenny Hicks, who’s been an Albany ambassador since 2015. 

“There are some times where it gets a little frustrating, but I talk to my supervisor and co-workers,” he said. “They helped me get through the day normally, like anybody else.”

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

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

When the pandemic set in, Radez quarantined until she could get vaccinated. She was asked to become an ambassador earlier this year, a job she quickly accepted and credits for turning around her life. 

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

Radez recalled taking her son on one of her tours through the downtown earlier this month where she stopped to talk with a number of individuals over the course of an hour. 

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

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

Categories: News, Schenectady, Schenectady County

One Comment

Bravo to the Ambassadors!
Our interactions with them have been 100% positive and it appears to be a true win-win for the city.
This is what “pro life” really looks like, and this comes from the minds of liberal/Progressive thinking.

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