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“Mr. Eddie” Makes Impact

Outside of two pool balls resting in a basket – the solid purple No. 4 ball and the striped maroon No. 15 ball –  the desk seems pretty ordinary.

There’s the normal stuff such as a tape dispenser, label maker, paperwork and other office supplies. A gray shelf just in front of his desk is home to two rows of popular video games like NBA 2K 20, Spider-Man and FIFA 19.

Pictures of family and friends plastered up in the top right corner make the room a little more personal, as does the hand-crafted painting of the New York Yankees’ pinstripes and famous NY insignia.

The desk belongs to Eddie Santiago, known affectionately around the Staunton-Augusta Family YMCA as “Mr. Eddie.”

His office view to the left is the YMCA gym. That’s perfect for Santiago, who grew up loving to emulate the passing ability of former NBA great Jason Kidd. And it’s also perfect because Santiago serves as the YMCA’s program director.

The view to the right of his desk is a former spin cycle room that’s been converted into a split-use facility. Three mornings a week, the room serves as The Adult Respite Care room. Then, every day at 2:00 pm, it converts into the YMCA’s Teen Center.

Santiago grew up in Jersey City, NJ, which has 10 times the population of Staunton. And although there was a much wider range of ethnic diversity – and a few more neighborhoods it was better to avoid – Santiago can see a lot of his childhood in the students who bombard the Teen Center doors each day.

There’s an old saying that you can impress people from far away but only impact them from up close.

And “Mr. Eddie” is making a difference.

“He brings an enthusiasm for working with kids that is rarely seen,” Staunton-Augusta Family YMCA executive director Josh Cole said. “He developed relationships with kids that didn’t exist before. He built that respect, and kids were able to buy in to what the YMCA was doing.”

HOW HE BECAME “MR. EDDIE”

As a teen, Santiago’s mom insisted that he volunteer at the Boys & Girls Club.

And that’s how he got his nickname.

“It was just cool that kids were calling me ‘Mr. Eddie,’” Santiago said. “I’m 16-years-old, and from what the lady had told me at that time, I was one of the few volunteers or community service people that the kids actually remembered their name.”

The volunteer hours turned into a summer camp position. The summer camp position led to him being a year-round program person. And being a year-round program person led to his life’s calling.

Working with kids.

His involvement with the Boys & Girls Club provided Santiago a front row seat to how harsh life could be for kids in the city.

“Just seeing that, it’s like, ‘Dang man, these kids need help, and maybe I could be the one to do that, one kid at a time,’” Santiago said. “From then on, I was just like ‘This is something I want to do for the rest of my life.’ It just comes easy and natural for me.”

JOINING THE YMCA

Santiago continued his work locally with the Boys & Girls Club. As that organization was transitioning out of running a Teen Center, the Staunton-Augusta Family YMCA was looking to grow its Teen Center.

“We were trying to figure out what’s best for me to help the community,” Santiago said, remembering back. “One suggestion was go to the YMCA and do outreach through the Boys & Girls Club.”

Santiago was so effective with his outreach that he was eventually offered a position to run the YMCA’s Teen Center full time.

“His enthusiasm is contagious,” Cole said. “His commitment to the youth has caused us to be more honest with our three areas of focus (healthy living, youth development, social responsibility).”

Almost immediately, Santiago went to work building and deepening relationships with students.

“I had a vision that I brought from the Boys & Girls Club,” Santiago said. “We want to make sure the kids are talking. When they don’t have anybody they trust – or they don’t have anybody to talk to – that’s typically when they get in trouble.”

MAKING A DIFFERENCE

Typically, youth workers know that fielding parent phone calls means working through a parent’s concern.

It’s an important and necessary part of the job.

Once in a while, however, there’s a parent call will brighten a youth worker’s entire day.

One phone call in particular happened the day after Santiago was working with a student. The middle schooler was apprehensive about participating in an activity because it would reveal a scar. Without pressuring the student, Santiago left the door open for participation.

Around 15 minutes into the activity, the student was fully participating, without a single care that the scar was visible.

“His mom called the next day,” said Santiago, wondering if he had done something to accidentally upset the student. “It turned out being nothing but praise.”

Or there was the time that Santiago and a student swapped stories about how it felt losing their fathers at an early age. It was a painful-but-important conversation that forever bonded the two.

“His mom called and was so thankful that we could do that for him,” Santiago said. “I just assured her like, ‘I know what he’s feeling. I know what’s he going through. Any time I can help out in any way, just let me know.’”

DEALING WITH CANCER … TWICE

Santiago remembered his father’s advice: keep your Michael Jordan basketball cards in mint condition. Since then, Santiago has always loved basketball. He was able to share that love with the community by creating men’s and women’s basketball leagues through the YMCA.

Santiago was actually playing basketball when a friend alerted him to a swollen spot on his neck.

“I just thought I had swollen lymph nodes or something,” Santiago said. “The doctor was like, ‘I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and I can tell just by looking at it and touching it – not to scare you – it’s probably cancer, but we won’t know until we do a biopsy.’”

The test revealed that Santiago did have cancer.

“I had to have chemotherapy sessions,” Santiago said. “I picked Friday so I could be sick on the weekends and then go back to work.”

Unfortunately, there was more bad news.

“In the middle of my chemo treatments, my mom got sick and she died,” Santiago said. “Then we found out she died from Stage 4 cancer. She was my best friend. She was my chemo talker. She’d call me, or I’d call her and let her know how I’m doing. It was my fourth chemo treatment out of 12 when she had passed away.”

Poetically, Santiago did the ceremonial cancer-free ringing of the bell on his mom’s birthday.

“When I found out my last treatment was February 8th, I got a little sad, and the doctor was like, ‘What’s wrong?’” Santiago said. “I was like February 12th is my mom’s birthday, and my last treatment is four days before this.’ And he was like, ‘We can wait four days, so you will always remember that for the rest of your life.’”

Santiago remembers being overcome with emotion.

“Ringing that bell wasn’t just for me,” Santiago said. “That was for my mom, too. Ringing that twice meant a heck of a lot. To this day, it’s one of my proudest accomplishments.”

AT HOME AT THE Y

The Boys & Girls Club will always have a huge part of Santiago’s heart.

Not only was it the organization that was there for him as a kid, it was also the organization that helped prepare him for his life’s work.

It changed his life.

It also made the thought of leaving difficult.

But he knows the staff at the Jersey City Boys & Girls Club would be proud of the work he’s currently doing at the Staunton-Augusta Family YMCA.

After all, they helped prepare him for this.

And “Mr. Eddie” knows his mom is proud of his YMCA work, too.

“My mom always asked me, ‘What’s your passion?’ And I ask kids that all the time,” Santiago said. “I told her, ‘Making kids happy.’ I know I if I could help a kid out, that makes me feel good.

“I just remember her crying on the phone, telling me how much she’s proud of me. She was so happy that she put me in the Boys & Girls Club, and she said that as a parent, that’s one of the best decisions she’s ever made with her kids.”

And he’s also glad he accepted the Y’s offer.

Santiago is living out his life purpose through the YMCA.

“The support I received from this place during my cancer treatments I will never forget,” Santiago said. “It’s very cool that we’re like family here.”

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