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An activist shares her West Side story A conversation with Lucy Candelario

Lucy A. Candelario, 52, is heading into her 18th year as executive director of West Side Community Services. Candelario, a University at Buffalo graduate, first worked as weatherization program director for the Belle Center. When she took a job at West Side Community Services, she started as its executive director.

Candelario oversees community center services that benefit schoolchildren and senior citizens living in Buffalo's multi-ethnic Niagara District. According to Candelario, Latinos make up more than half the families who use the center, which also helps African-Americans and immigrants from Asia; there are many from Burma and Somalia.

Candelario's service to the community goes beyond the center she directs. She also sits on the boards of several organizations – Community Action Organization of Erie County, Buffalo Prenatal-Perinatal Network, D'Youville College Community Advisory Board and Hispanic Women's League.

Born and raised in Buffalo, Candelario is married with two grown children.

People Talk: What is it that you do at West Side Community Services?

Lucy Candelario: Most of my day is spent either reporting to a funding source or trying to find additional funding for the agency. I'm sitting in front of a computer researching. Most of our funding comes from a City of Buffalo Community Development Block Grant, and we have funding through the Erie County Department of Mental Health.

PT: Are you a fighter?

LC: Yes. I guess, growing up with six brothers, you learn. My mother and father worked very hard. They came over from Puerto Rico. Their first jobs were as migrant workers. I had a great childhood. We were poor. I grew up on Hudson Street, the second-youngest. We went through all the desegregation stuff, being bused.

PT: What's the secret to your longevity in the job?

LC: I like what I do. I'm a good manager. I bring people together. I have a very small budget, but I'll put our agency up against any other. I've always helped people. That's probably why I've lasted so long.

I've also formed collaborations with smaller agencies. We go after grants together. Agencies tend to get very territorial. They're afraid of losing their funding, their clientele. "If I don't accept this money, they'll give it to someone else, and they'll have all the glory." I had to let that go maybe 10 years ago.

PT: What recent challenge have you dealt with?

LC: Violence. We're usually left alone, but lately I'll find smashed bottles in the parking lot, doors kicked in, alarm systems tampered with. There's a lot of violence out there.

PT: What about graffiti?

LC: Not anymore. Years ago, we'd constantly get tagged, and we'd constantly take it off. I don't like graffiti, period. I can honestly say in the past five years, maybe we've been tagged once or twice. We'll paint right over it. It's usually gang tags. Gangs are a problem on the West Side. When you look at it, gangs are kids just trying to form a group, a family, trying to receive something they don't get at home. You have a lot of refugees, a lot of different cultures in this neighborhood. They'll form their own gangs.

PT: How does the influx of Asian refugees change your mission?

LC: There's a language barrier, and you have to work with other agencies – Journey's End Refugee Services, the International Institute of Buffalo – to provide the service. The majority of the seniors speak English. The youth do not.

PT: How have kids changed?

LC: There's a great lack of respect for the elderly. A lot of times kids think they are supposed to receive things without really having earned them. When an adult came to my parents with a queja (a complaint), you knew you were going to be disciplined. Nowadays, the parent is defending the child. Why is that? Because kids are raising kids? They were never taught? Is it a generational thing?

PT: You serve both ends of the age spectrum. Are the needs similar?

LC: They both require a lot of attention. The elderly are frail, and you have to be careful about people trying to take advantage of them. It's the same with children. We have collaborations with D'Youville College where students help with our after-school activities. Right now we have 300 kids in the program. With seniors, it's the socialization. They all live alone. This is like a little pearl within their community. Independent Health comes in for nutritional programs and health screening. They provide exercise programs. And it's all free.

PT: Who is your role model?

LC: My husband. I learned a lot from him. He really worked his way up. He was executive director of the Belle Center, and when the opportunity came up here, he's the one who said I should try it. He became my mentor. Now he is assistant executive director of the Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority. I lean on him a lot, but I still say I can read people better than he can.

PT: How have you changed during your tenure?

LC: I've mellowed. I used to be tougher. I always thought that I had to prove myself, being a female in this position, that I had to fight for everything. But now it's easier because people accept it and expect it, and they more easily help you. I have a staff of 10, many of whom have been with me for 17 years. That's unheard of. Usually agencies this small are used as a steppingstone for people.

PT: Do you have any thoughts of moving on?

LC: My kids have kept me here. "Mom we grew up at the center," they say. And now my grandson is coming after school. I mean, he's only 4, but he'll be running around in the office. I'll be here forever.