Michael MacDonald has lived on the streets. As a 15-year-old abusing alcohol, cigarettes and marijuana, he was kicked out of his home. He lived in a hallway in an apartment complex and then in a storage area under a home.
"It was tough," he said. "It was hard not having anything to eat, and I had a problem finding showers."
After being discovered by the police, Mr. MacDonald entered the "system" and found himself shuffled from group home to group home.
Finding a home
This shuffling ended when the Yonkers native found himself at LaSalle School in Albany. LaSalle is a multi-faceted child welfare agency, serving youth and families in critical need through its residential, day services and prevention services programs.
Founded in 1854 by the Brothers of Christian Schools as a boys orphanage, LaSalle School now assists boys between 11 and 18 who are referred by county social service agencies, school district committees of special education, the New York State Office of Children and Family Services and the Family Court system.
Having spent his life up until that point hanging out with the same group of kids and not venturing further than the Bronx, "I thought Albany was cow country," Mr. McDonald said.
But coming to LaSalle marked a turning point for the troubled youth. "I knew from that day that it was all on my shoulders," he said.
Now a childcare worker at LaSalle, Mr. MacDonald works with troubled youth between 12 and 14. His own experiences of being a client have helped him in his work.
"A lot of our kids are hardcore street kids," he said. "They say, 'You don't know what it's like." I tell them that I was there for five years."
The difference between the kids he worked with and himself is that he had the opportunity to stay at LaSalle longer than they can.
"Back then, your term could be longer," he explained. "It took me a year before I opened up. Now the kids are back home after six months. I think the system should hold on to them longer. They're going back to the same family and the same friends."
Had Mr. MacDonald been forced to return home after six months at LaSalle, he doesn't think he would be where he is today. "I'm a good person," he said, "but I may have fallen in with the wrong people."
After five years at LaSalle, Mr. MacDonald was able to get a full-time job in the shipping and receiving department at Spector's clothing store. A few years later, he began to work at LaSalle part time. Eventually, he decided working at LaSalle full time was his calling.
Now he works side by side with some of the same LaSalle employees who assisted him when he was a troubled teen.
Mr. MacDonald would like all of the youth at LaSalle to have a brighter future, but he is realistic in his expectations. "If we could change at least five percent of these kids, it would be better than jail," he said.
While society may see youth in such programs as troublemakers and future criminals, Mr. MacDonald sees them differently. "We need to give them a chance," he said. "Everyone makes mistakes. A lot of these kids are victims or come from non-Brady Bunch families."
He describes LaSalle as "a place of healing where kids get a little help. A lot of these kids just need someone to talk to."
While working at LaSalle has provided him with the opportunity to give back to the community that helped him put his life on track, Mr. MacDonald has also found working at the agency has helped him in his personal life.
As the stepfather of two, he finds himself incorporating some of the child-rearing techniques learned at LaSalle.
"My stepkids are 21 and 17," he said. "Working at LaSalle helped me a bit, especially as they've gotten older and their problems are bigger."
Mr. MacDonald is not the only LaSalle School success story to return to the agency to help others. Randy Fiaschetti, a crisis counselor at the school, was also once a resident.
Mr. Fiaschetti and his twin brother were made wards of the state when their mother, suffering from multiple sclerosis, was no longer able to care for them. The twins came to LaSalle in 1967 when they were 12.
Mr. Fiaschetti said that he couldn't imagine his life without LaSalle. "I wouldn't change a day in my life except for getting my mother help," he said. "The Lord works in mysterious ways."
Making a difference
Prior to coming to LaSalle, Mr. Fiaschetti lived in a rough section of Syracuse. "If I didn't come to LaSalle, I wouldn't have finished school," he said.
After graduating from high school, he left LaSalle and took college courses. In 1978, he returned to give back what had been given to him. He has been employed at LaSalle ever since.
During his tenure, he has watched the buildings that house LaSalle change through renovations and additions. He has also seen the negative effects of cultural changes on society's most vulnerable youth. The one constant has been LaSalle.
"The philosophy and the spirit of St. John the Baptist de LaSalle has remained throughout the years," he said.
The young people that Mr. Fiaschetti works with have experienced abuse and neglect, and have often been in trouble with the law. However, he believes, their needs aren't that different from those of other young people.
"They have the need and want for trusting adults, structure and three squares a day," he said. "All kids want structure and security. A lot of these kids haven't had any breaks. They've been sexually abused, physically abused, and live in bad environments. They are still children, and they can get back on track."
Mr. Fiaschetti would like more people to understand what happens at LaSalle. Often, he said, people are afraid of the youth. "People think that they're bad boys," he said.
He would like people to know that the boys are trying to get their lives on track. "We are a caring and healing agent for children," he said. "A lot of good goes on here."
Bringing it home
Like Mr. MacDonald, Mr. Fiaschetti has found his LaSalle experience has influenced him as a parent. The father of eight-year-old Patrick, Mr. Fiaschetti is committed to being a good parent.
"When I look at Patrick, I know what his needs and his wants are," he said. "I love him, am there for him, and recognize his need to hear and be heard."
Although Mr. Fiaschetti works in a field that has a high rate of burn-out, he can't imagine working anywhere else. His faith, he said, sustains him, and he tries to leave his problems at work rather than bringing them home.
Each day, Mr. Fiaschetti looks forward to going to work. He explained, "I enjoy the kids. I need them as much as they need me."