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City Mission pitches social enterprise

SCHENECTADY — The CEO of the City Mission made a case Thursday for social entrepreneurship — an investment by the business community in people who need help.

More than just money, he said, what’s needed is a willingness to take a chance on those who are learning to believe in themselves, often for the first time in their lives.

Mike Saccocio spoke at the one of the lunchtime entrepreneurship sessions sponsored by Clarkson University and the New York BizLab, a series that generally has focused on business successes and how they were accomplished.

As he introduced Saccocio, BizLab founder and President Antonio Civitella marveled at the impact the City Mission has, not on numbers but on lives.

“Think about that: What’s one person worth?” he asked. “Here is a man that has grown this agency that is about human needs that some of us forgot about.”

Saccocio said the City Mission works with a vulnerable and damaged population and has more failures than successes in its efforts to help people get their lives back on track. But for those success stories, employment is an invaluable part of the process. It can take six years for a formerly homeless person to stabilize in a job. This is where the Mission needs help from the business world.

“At the end of the day, we all want the same thing for this community: We want to live and work in a community where people flourish,” Saccocio said.

He added that some employers are unwilling to take a chance on the Mission’s residents and clients because of their struggles. 

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“I work with a whole lot of people who want to work — who want jobs. How can a community pass on that? The problem is that there’s not necessarily trust between the two groups.”

The Mission itself is one of the biggest employers of its former residents — about 30 currently. They are, he said, the best possible inspiration to those who don’t believe in themselves. Changing the self-image ingrained through multi-generation poverty is actually harder than changing public perception of the homeless, Saccocio added, “because [when] you’re dealing with so much crisis and survival, you kind of give up on the future.”

One of the Mission’s success stories has been the Downtown Ambassador program it began with Proctors in 2009, which employs Mission residents on show nights to greet people on the streets around the theater, giving them directions and helping them cross the streets, always in their trademark red jackets and red flashlights.

Other businesses have begun hiring the ambassadors, as well, and they’ve been popular with the public and the business community alike.

Last year they worked 300 nights.

“I like to say that downtown Schenectady may be the only downtown in America where the business people pay the homeless to stand in front of their business and greet the customers,” Saccocio said.

There are benefits beyond the paycheck and the self-esteem, he added: The ambassadors are familiar with street life and the issues that surround it, so they can spot trouble as it develops.

Recently, Saccocio said, one female ambassador noticed something not right with a woman heading for a restroom and went in to check on her after she failed to come out. 

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The woman had overdosed and was sprawled unconscious on the floor. The ambassador was able to radio for help in time to save her.

“I probably would not have noticed this woman was in trouble,” Saccocio said.

“Our leaders have recognized that the folks that are coming to the table as ambassadors have very different experiences and, as a result, have unique insights and skills to contribute,” he continued. “That is the essence of social enterprise, and that is the essence of empowering people to own transformation of their community.”


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