A death brings tears, and reminiscences of 'a beautiful soul'

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PITTSFIELD — It seemed like every time Jose Bruno Santiago made strides to improve his life, a new challenge would present itself.

Despite his struggles, though, the 33-year-old rarely was without a smile, according to several Pittsfield outreach leaders who knew him.

"There was always some barrier he had to go through, but he just kept plugging away," said Debbie Vall, assistant director at The Christian Center. "I couldn't even believe how resilient he was."

Santiago, who recently had moved to North Adams from Pittsfield, was found dead at Burbank Park on Aug. 6. The Berkshire District Attorney's Office has said that the circumstances around his death were not suspicious, but an autopsy report with an official cause of death has not yet been completed.

Santiago, a New Jersey native, had battled drug addiction and homelessness for many years, according to Anaelisa Jacobsen, co-founder of the Manos Unidas Multicultural Educational Cooperative.

For Santiago, regaining custody of his daughter, who has been in foster care for almost her whole life, was his ultimate goal, she and Vall said.

"He was constantly trying to see his daughter," Vall said. "I think it was really difficult for him."

Santiago was a regular at The Christian Center, where he would visit for food and clothes.

He also was a founding member of Manos Unidas, a multicultural nonprofit that connects individuals to bilingual resources, arts and cultural organizing.

Santiago was excited about his involvement with the group, and talked openly about his goals and his daughter, Jacobsen said. No matter how little money he had, he would make efforts to be in the 6-year-old's life, she said.

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"She was his everything [to him]," Jacobsen said of Santiago's daughter.

No matter the challenges he was facing in his own life, he would find a way to speak to her every day. He would borrow phones to call her or go without food to buy her a gift, she said.

He also would do whatever he could to help others who were struggling, Jacobsen said.

In fact, sometimes he was so worried about taking care of others that he neglected to care for himself, she said.

"He would give you the shirt off his back," Vall added.

Santiago's biggest challenge was poverty and transportation.

One time, he had secured a job in Hancock and would ride his bike there. Being unable to get there in time, or at all, because of problems with the bike contributed to him losing his job and, as a result, housing, she recalled.

Jacobsen said she last had seen and spoken to Santiago about two weeks before she learned of his death.

"He had a lot of struggles, but when I found out he had passed away, I couldn't even believe it. We were all crying," Vall said. "He was just a beautiful soul. Just to think all of the struggles he endured, he was so positive."

Haven Orecchio-Egresitz can be reached at horecchio@berkshireeagle.com, @HavenEagle on Twitter and 413-770-6977.


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