City Mission in COVID-19: Interview with Mike Saccocio

Mike Saccocio

Mike Saccocio

Daniel Greenman, 807 Editor

During COVID-19, City Mission of Schenectady has not closed “for a single hour”, says Director and Union alum Mike Saccocio ’83. Each night, the Mission, which provides emergency, long-term and short-term shelter, housed nearly 100 homeless adults and children while balancing expansion and health policy challenges.

Saccocio points to two management principles: “flexibility and resiliency.” He learned this early: “Rules were changing all the time. You’d come up with a way to do something, then CDC or the state would tell you to change.” But the Mission’s core work of feeding, sheltering and clothing residents was imperative: “We can’t say ‘Sorry, we can’t help you’. We’re the last resort.” In a Code Blue (extremely cold weather), as many people as possible must be close together, which contradicts social distancing: “Last [Wednesday] night was 6° below zero. We’ll compromise COVID-19 protocol and get everyone in. It’s worth it.” To safely feed residents over 500 meals a day, the Mission stopped gathering them around a table and opened the dining room to 10 people at once. The all-residents community meal changed too, to takeout for the last two years. “I don’t think [the new community meal is] as good but it is needed”, says Saccocio.

A big loss due to COVID-19 was the amount of volunteers. An average 700 hours a week of their service in the kitchen, serving meals and teaching classes “stopped overnight” in March 2020 when they could no longer enter. Though they were provided masks and vaccines when available, Saccocio says the risk of COVID-19 persisted, and some family of staff feared COVID-19 would come home. Some volunteers took a leave of absence too—especially older or higher-risk ones—but many more are at work now than early in COVID-19. They now number “a little less than this past summer.” Volunteering from Union changed too. Saccocio says he “loves [the Mission’s] partnership with Union” adding that “Staff at the Kenney [Community] Center has been a godsend. Students have made enormous difference here.” Though Union volunteering “rose and fell during COVID-19”, the “only time we saw a real lack of participation was when students weren’t around or when protocols were so strict they couldn’t come down.”

Saccocio says some programs with Union are paused but that he saw consistent commitment, crediting Janet Sweeney, The Kenney Center’s Director of Community Outreach. He hopes to add student volunteer opportunities in the future. But when volunteers couldn’t work, “residents stepped up. A number really proved themselves.” This inspired a quote from Saccocio: “People who are used to crisis often do well in a crisis.” The Mission also regularly has about 35 former residents on staff, who became “some of [the] main leaders”. Saccocio adds that “Many staff see their job as a calling, particularly program graduates, who say ‘The Mission was there for me when I needed help.'” Most of the paid Advocacy Management staff stayed too during the pandemic, though last week nine couldn’t work due to positive tests or exposure. “Pretty much, strategies are one day at a time”, Saccocio says. Going forward he wants residents and volunteers at “full-scale.”

Due to the pandemic making schools work remotely, hurt the Weekend Backpack program—which gets weekend meals to about 900 elementary school children—the most. It stopped when schools went remote. “We never quite figured out other ways to get food to people”, says Saccocio, though the program is “back to normal now.”

The Mission also carried out expansion plans in COVID-19. Its Freight Farm—a 40-foot shipping container with hydroponics and LED lights—opened Spring 2020 in partnership with State Employees’ Federal Credit Union (SEFCU), and is “doing really well.” On the 27th, the Mission had a salad bar with lettuce all from the Farm in its dining center, and shared its lettuce with other community agencies. Noah’s Ark, a staff-supervised classroom for school-age children, also opened during COVID. Supplies include books, paints and a computer for children to attend online class. In other plans: “this year [the Mission wants] to increase health and wellness.” This includes the completed openings of “a brand-new building with a fitness center” and “new mental health counselling offices.” The Mission also opened 10 new apartments for its graduates. Working over Zoom was another welcome change. The Mission’s board hasn’t met in person in two years, but has been successful, says Saccocio, and in the future he has realized things to “keep doing: work remotely, do Zoom meetings; we expanded communication in a very cost-effective way.” He adds that “Our culture of innovating has improved.”

The community around the Mission has become more collaborative in COVID-19 too. “Sometimes there is nothing like a crisis to bring people together”, Saccocio says, adding that “Communication is tighter in different social sector agencies.” He says The Schenectady Foundation—whose site cites its community fund to aid against things like “food insecurity, neighborhood blight, and disconnected youth”—has played a leadership role in COVID-19. He points to its relief coalition that expanded to getting those at risk food, then to job-finding and recruiting. This led to a “robust coalition of social sector agencies, local government and businesses that is much stronger than pre-COVID-19.”  Saccocio also shouted out Blair Raymond, Director of Strategic Initiatives and External Relations in President Harris’s office, who “consistently helped the Mission with supplies.”

“I always felt bad for other good organizations that had to close [during COVID-19]”, says Saccocio. “Our theme was keep doors open and lights on.”