Volume 21, Number 9 | THE NEWSPAPER OF LOWER MANHATTAN | July 11 - 17, 2008
Downtown Express photo by Daniel Diaz

Fernando Santiago cleans the American fl ag at Ellis Island this week, where he works 364 days a year through the Chelsea-based job-placement organization Fedcap. The nonprofi t pairs disabled people with various employment opportunities.

Ellis Island staffers working through disabilities

By Fahima Haque

It’s a painstakingly long two-hour drive from Yonkers to Ellis Island. Yet Fernando Santiago, the historic port’s custodial supervisor, happily makes this commute every morning at 4:30 a.m. to ensure that every last surface has been scrubbed to gleam for the unwavering stream of tourists visiting daily.

Santiago began working at Ellis Island four years ago through the assistance of Fedcap, a Chelsea-based nonprofit established in 1935 and dedicated to developing training and employment programs for those with disabilities.

Fedcap, with offices on W. 14th and W. 19th St., serves as the primary employer for about 1,200 workers with various disadvantages. According to the organization, a disability can mean anything from hearing impairment or cerebral palsy to drug and alcohol abuse — anything the Americans with Disabilities Act deems a disadvantage. It’s often challenging for people with these issues to find work, said Fedcap communications director Daniel Diaz, so the organization helps them navigate the complicated process.

Fedcap prepares its employees to obtain jobs through a training period that typically lasts anywhere from three to six months. Once completed, the organization pairs them with a contracted employer to begin work, said Jennifer Bertrand, Fedcap’s director of community relations. Most employers are federal and state government buildings with positions running the gamut from office services and manufacturing to food services and home health care.

The organization also teaches newly trained employees how to write resumes, what to wear to a job interview and the overall concept of professionalism, Bertrand said. “We help them on how to get a job, keep a job, and the idea that you have to show up at 9 a.m. and you can’t leave until 5 p.m.,” she added.

Dressed in a light-blue pinstriped shirt and navy slack uniform, Santiago learned this lesson quickly, working 364 days a year regardless of “rain, snow or fire.” Santiago said he learned the importance of responsibility while working at Ellis Island, leading to a promotion to custodial supervisor his first few months there.

Despite the long hours that entail supervising, scrubbing, cleaning restrooms, dusting and cleaning fingerprints, Santiago doesn’t stress. “When the tourists keep touching the glass windows, it’s just job security, and I say, ‘Thank you very much,’” he quipped. In fact, Santiago regards himself as a people person and loves the tourists, answering their questions about the Island’s rich history and powerful message, and even translating for Spanish-speaking visitors.

However, Santiago did not always maintain such a positive attitude. Born in the Bronx, he spent his youth coping with his mother’s death and battling drug and alcohol abuse before being arrested at 17 and serving a seven-year sentence. Once he was released, he and his counselor researched job options and came across Fedcap, which has provided Santiago with living wages, or about $15 dollars per hour for Fedcap graduates, including benefits.

His wife was pregnant with his son when Santiago realized he had to do the right thing. He said that his drug counselor helped him address his difficulties, but that he also wanted to make a larger change. He stopped partying in clubs and didn’t return to the same streets and neighborhoods that originally led him astray.

Now, he showers his wife with spa treatments and gift certificates to celebrate their recent one-year anniversary, and relishes fatherhood by playing chess, reading and watching movies with his 8-year-old son. And with the recent addition of his 6-month-old daughter, Santiago describes his as the all-American family. “Forget those old friends,” he said, “because these little ones are my real friends.”

His amiable attitude and charming demeanor are not lost on his coworkers. Santiago oversees more than two-dozen staff members and has established genuine relationships with them. He learned sign language to communicate with his five deaf coworkers and helps to motivate them on the job. In fact, one of Santiago’s ex-coworkers calls him every Saturday morning at 9 a.m. just to keep in touch.

Willie Jones, a Brooklyn resident and another Fedcap employee at Ellis Island, offered praise for his colleague. He said Santiago is a solid leader, teaching Jones how to properly complete tasks and operate the machines.

“Practically all of us come from the five boroughs and have had a hard life,” Santiago said. “We understand each other and all grew up in the ghetto. I tell them, ‘I’m just like you—I wasn’t born with a silver spoon.’ So when I give them advice, it’s like helping myself, too,” he said.

Some of his fellow deaf coworkers at Ellis Island have nicknamed him “F,” and he likens himself to the character Stripe from the movie “Gremlins” because of a gray patch at the crown of his head. His supervisor, Gilbert Salas, simply considers him “his right-hand man.”

“It’s important for people to know about this program in New York City, that people do want to change their lives,” Salas said.

“I always say I’m going to retire with Fedcap because they gave me a shot,” Santiago added, “and I’m grateful for that.”a




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