Jenn Smith | Recess: How a school adjustment counselor learned 'you don't give up on anybody'
PITTSFIELD — "When people ask me, 'how did you get into this field,' I tell them my parents set the tone," Dom Sacco tells me.
The longtime school adjustment counselor and community volunteer stopped by the newsroom unannounced Monday morning to chat.
"You see, my mother is on her deathbed," he said. "She's done so much in this community. She's worked very hard, but kept these stories very much to herself. So I guess that's why I'm here. For her."
I ask him to tell me more, and he does, with me, the copy machine, and anyone within earshot of our small newsroom waiting area listening.
I learn that his mother is 92, and her health has been declining. She's comforted greatly, he said, by the staff at Mount Greylock Extended Care, because she's always trying to comfort them.
"She used to sit in this one area and take people by the hand and ask how they were doing. Everyone knows her, from the custodian to the director. She's just a heart-filled lady," he tells me.
She was born as Bethany, "but everybody calls her 'Betty,'" her son tells me. His father, Felice, went by "Phil."
The couple raised Dom and his brother, Timothy, but also helped care for dozens of others.
"We lived in a two-family house on Harris Street and my family would always take in children from [the state Department of Children and Families] or youth hostel kids traveling through Pittsfield," Dom explained.
According to Eagle records, between 1968 and 1972, the Saccos served as house parents for Sprague House, a DCF "home for unwed mothers," who were mostly teenagers. When Sprague House closed, they went on to help reopen a Downey Side home for girls at 69 Onota St., where they served as house parents until 1975.
Downey Side was co-founded in the 1960s by a young priest of the Capuchin Franciscan Order named Paul Engel. He helped establish a collective of group homes for youths between the ages of 12 and 16, waiting for adoption, throughout Western Massachusetts, including Pittsfield. The homes were kept by married couples who were instructed to offer the youths what their previous homes and foster homes may have lacked: "love and discipline and privacy."
"I remember it was more like having 10 sisters," Dom said. "It felt like a home where we all sat around a table and had dinner together and talked together. My mother taught the girls how to knit and how to sew, and she brought them shopping."
The Saccos had a foster daughter, Eleanor Ehret, who came to live with them in Pittsfield after growing up from a young age in a home for orphans near Boston. At Betty's encouragement, Ehret went on to take a job at Mount Greylock Extended Care, where Ehret herself passed away in 2009 after battling with cancer, and where Betty Sacco is living out her life today.
Her husband also died young, at age 56, in 1980. But Betty would continue caring for people, in sickness and in health. Dom remembers her baking pies for neighbors and feeding his college friends or anyone else who would come to visit her.
After retiring as a nurse from the former St. Luke's Hospital, she worked as a "private duty" caregiver until age 80, recommended solely by word of mouth. The son remembers his mother serving as hospice nurse for their own family members. Even former Pulitzer Prize-winning Eagle editor Roger Linscott remembered her as his devoted "family friend and caregiver" in his 2008 obituary.
These days, encouraged by his mother's style and spirit, Dom himself has made hundreds of home visits to help ensure the well-being of his students. "She would tell me, 'you don't stop until the job is done. You don't give up on anyone,'" he said.
"I'm sure throughout the county there are a lot of others who do things like this," he said. "But unlike some people who slow down when they get older, she never lost her tenacity or her empathy."
After Dom left, I wondered about today's Eleanors, and other children who are looking for that help, that guidance, that love and tenacity and empathy needed to help them feel stable and find their own successes.
According to the Massachusetts Adoption Resource Exchange (MARE), there are there are approximately 2,800 children of the commonwealth in foster care with a goal of adoption. More than 1,200 of these children have no identified match for prospective families and are waiting to find a permanent family. More than 50 percent of waiting children are of African American or Hispanic descent and have a sibling they hope will be adopted with them.
Some of these kids are waiting in our neighborhoods, our classrooms, our clinics, for more folks like Betty to come around and offer, if not a home, an open mind, and an open heart, and an open hand to hold, whenever needed.
Jenn Smith can be reached at email@example.com, at @JennSmith_Ink on Twitter and 413-496-6239.
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