Old women with walkers shuffled towards the Catholic Charities Lt. Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Center in Harlem last month through a foot of snow and ice. Moms with hungry children in tow herded towards its food bank.
Ted Staniecki, the center’s facilities manager, grabbed a snow shovel with Kennedy Center Director Rodney Beckford, fellow staff Hector Estrella and Jose Crisostomo, and dug and scraped until they cleared a path.
Times like these are what Ted says he likes most about his job.
It’s Ted’s low key, hands-on approach facing down hurdles that make him a hero among those who know him best.
“I don’t think enjoying my job is work,” Ted says, “so I haven’t worked a day in my life.”
The son of a Waldorf-Astoria doorman, Ted, before transferring his talents to Catholic Charities, worked his way up from middle school teacher and coach to Washington Heights Incarnation School principal.
This was “back in the days,” wrote a Daily News reporter “when the streets outside were so dangerous team members would have to dive to the sidewalk when gangsters pulled out Uzis.”
Challenges Ted braved were so extreme that news outlets across the city covered them. The Wall Street Journal wrote about how Ted, the founder, driver, assistant couch and all-around godfather of the Incarnation Angels girls CYO basketball team, brought them to city championship in 1997. Meanwhile, the team shared their home court, the Fort Washington armory shelter, with 1,400 homeless men.
The same year, The New York Times covered a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing public school teachers to provide remedial instruction to students in Catholic school classrooms. Sounds logical now, but for the prior 12 years, federal law forbid public school teachers from instructing students with special needs on Catholic school property.
So 200 of Incarnation School’s 520 students grades K – 8 would traipse out of the school for remedial help. They studied in three trailers parked nearby as drivers idled the vans for power and lights.
“We finally got some common sense,” Ted told The Times.
After retiring from Catholic schools, Ted worked as director of the West Bronx CYO Center. Then, five years ago, he came to Catholic Charities Kennedy Center.
Similar to its Harlem neighborhood, the Center, he says, needed reviving.
“Kennedy Center needed a paint job; it needed pictures; it needed people,” Ted says.
Deacon Rodney Beckford took over as Kennedy Center’s director, joining Ted and a host of supportive staff and administration to transform the once-sleepy center to one now exploding with activity. From sunrise to sunset, seven days a week, activities ranging from Harambee dance to gospel choirs, from basketball games to social service programs, fill the four-story building with song and action.
Harlem, in turn, is undergoing a similar revival. The famous Lenox Lounge reopened along with the Red Rooster restaurant. Congressmen Charlie Rangel lives across the street from Kennedy Center. Governor David Patterson and former Mayor David Dinkins live nearby.
“Kennedy fits in well helping the neighborhood heal from the tough times it’s been through,” Ted says. “Our staff is balanced – all nationalities – and people who come here just see someone who is here, who is going to help them, going to respect them.”