Chris Graf knows Susan will never return to Schenectady’s City Mission.
Once a secretary, wife and mother, middle-aged Susan had become a drug addict and prostitute by 2000. She received help at Serenity House, the Mission’s women’s shelter, and recovered sufficiently to land a job at the mission’s front desk.
But Susan eventually returned to the streets. She died alone around 2005.
Graf tells the story in a new book about the mission, its procedures and its people. “A Light in the Window: The City Mission of Schenectady” is about Dekida, Reggie, Zina, Debra, Mike and others who have passed through or become part of the downtown complex.
While short history books about the mission, its founders and directors have been published before, there has never been a book about the people and stories inside the place. Graf proposed the book to mission Director Mike Saccocio in 2008, gave him a second pitch in 2009 and began working on the project in 2010.
The mission was founded in 1906. The organization’s long-term goal is rooted in religion — sharing the gospel of Christ in word and deed. The mission and its parts — they include a new dining hall, clothing recycling center, urban ministry programs and career and education services — are designed to meet the needs of the poor and bolster dignity and strength at the same time.
Graf, who personally financed the project, hopes there is local interest in the 208-page book.
“There are a lot of people who support the City Mission, millions of dollars are donated each year to fund operations and we’re not government-funded,” said Graf, who lives in Malta. “My hope is that people who are interested in the mission and maybe have supported it over the years — and I know there are thousands of people who have supported it — will want to read it. I think it’s going to make them feel really good to know that their dollars are really being used to change lives.”
The book is split into three sections. Saccocio’s story is told in the first part; daily mission operations form the second part; personal stories from mission residents are the third and concluding part.
Failure and sad stories are also part of “A Light in the Window.” Susan’s story inspired the title. The last time Saccocio saw the woman, at a mission Thanksgiving dinner in 2003, he told her there would be always be candle lights burning in the window for her — and a chance to come home.
Saccocio, who has been on the mission staff since 1989 and has worked as director since 1996, believes it’s important for people to know not all mission stories have happy endings.
“You want to portray that, that there’s no magic formula here, there’s no guaranteed results,” Saccocio said. “What there is though, through all the brokenness, through all the struggle, good emerges. And that good is the source of hope.”
Saccocio also said he believes it would be a disservice to imply that everything works at the mission. When there success stories, he said, it makes the work seem all the more worthwhile.
“It also sends the message, even when all else fails, we’re going to keep on trying,” he said. “I like to say to people, the best strength the City Mission has, we make mistakes every day, we fall short, we don’t measure up. One thing we have that makes us strong is we never close. If we blow lunch, we’re serving dinner. If we had a bad night, we’re at it again in the morning.”
So perseverance becomes part of the message.
“And it’s faith,” Saccocio said. “That’s what faith allows you to do, keep coming back even when you went 0-for-5 with four strikeouts. You have to come back the next day.”
Saccocio is fine with baseball terms, and baseball is part of the book. Saccocio, a baseball standout at Schalmont Central School in Rotterdam and at Union College, pursued a baseball career. He signed with the former Montreal Expos of the National League and hoped for a job in center field. The baseball career — and later political aspirations — didn’t work out.
Saccocio had no problem sharing his disappointments in print,
“Everybody else was willing to share, so I followed their lead,” he said. “This wasn’t the path I set out on. I had failure that got me to this path. You know what? That’s kind of the story of everybody else — our failures can get us to where to we need to be.”
Saccocio believes the Graf book is important because the work at the mission is complex.
“I think a lot of times we’re searching for simple answers to complex things like poverty and addiction and homelessness and there aren’t any simple answers,” he said. “You need to go under the surface and get in-depth with what are people’s stories — what brings them to where they are, how did they get here? You need to understand that first.”
Saccocio said hope — and change for good — are other elements of the book. Saccocio believes in life-changing events.
“That’s a message for anyone who reads it, because everyone goes though tough times,” he said. “It’s a message for people who want to make a difference in the lives of others, it’s a message for people who are in tough times to know there can be a light at the end of that tunnel. It’s going to be a message for people who come to City Mission, to have a collection of these stories and say, ‘You know what? You could be the next chapter.’ ”
Graf, a current volunteer at the mission, said writing stories about the place and its people taught her a lesson.
“What I learned the most out of this was, on a very personal level, to realize how lucky I have been in my life,” she said. “It made me appreciate the blessings in my life more than I ever had.
“I always knew I had a good life. I had loving parents and good role models, they taught me the value of education. I took it for granted because everybody that I knew grew up that way.”
She met people who whose parents were addicted to drugs. She met others who were raised in poverty. So writing the book was an emotional experience.
“I just felt so much compassion for what people had gone through,” Graf said.
She was surprised that the people she talked to — selected by Saccocio — were so anxious to be interviewed. “Every person said, ‘Yes, you can use my real name.’ I changed a couple names where there was domestic violence, there were a couple I actually chose to change on my own … even though they said to use their real names.”
Debra and Zina
Debra Person is in the book. She had developed a drinking problem as a young adult and later was sexually assaulted. She dropped out of high school, entered a marriage full of drugs, alcohol and homelessness and entered Serenity House in 1998.
“There shouldn’t be a candle, there should be a beam in the window, a lightning bolt,” said Person, who now runs her own women’s shelter — Exodus House — in Syracuse. “I was given hope and they loved me until I was able to love myself. I have held onto that love and I’ve been able to give it to others.”
Zina Black was also glad to share her troubles in the book. They’re gone now, and Black is now a chef at the mission’s Wallace M. Campbell Dining Center.
“It’s something to be proud of,” said Black, as she prepared pork chops, rice and salad for a recent dinner crowd. “My story might help another struggling person; it might want to help a person want to change their life, get their life together.”
She’d like to inspire others who are down in life.
“It’s not as hard as a person would think it is, to straighten their life out,” Black said. “They’re going to learn that life, as days go by, it gets better. It’s about change, it’s about not struggling and suffering any more.”
The book is available online and locally at the City Mission and at The Open Door Bookstore in Schenectady. A portion of sale proceeds will go to the mission.