ACE program deals graduates another chance at life


By Aline Reynolds

Less than two years ago, Lester Grant, 52, was eating from dumpsters and sleeping in abandoned cars.

He was addicted to crack cocaine and other drugs for 40 years.

“I prayed to God to get me out of the hole,” he told fellow members and graduates of the Association of Community Employment at the organization’s quarterly commencement ceremony last Thursday evening in Soho.

Now, Grant owns an exterminator business, is raising a 6-year-old son and lives in his own rental apartment in the Bronx.

“I feel great — I feel like a new person,” he said, smiling.

Grant managed to turn his life around with the help of ACE, which offers a four-to-six-month vocational program of individual counseling and paid street-cleaning work to homeless people from around the city. Many ACE members are simultaneously enrolled in drug or alcohol rehabilitation programs so they can overcome their addictions.

“ACE taught me how to be consistent, how to work hard and how to love myself,” said Grant, who graduated from the program a year ago.

Eleven of 17 spring 2011 graduates from ACE’s Project Comeback program received their certificates last week. Many of them have already secured full-time jobs and are transitioning into stable housing situations.

“We’re here to celebrate your successes of today and your dreams for tomorrow,” Jim Martin, ACE’s executive director, told them at the ceremony.

ACE graduate Robert Nieves, who once robbed stores, now works for Wine and Roses restaurant on the Upper West Side, where the manager recently gave him the keys to the business.

“A couple of years ago I would have robbed them — that was my addiction,” he said. “This program made me a man.

“For the new guys, it’s going to be rough,” Nieves counseled, urging current members to “hang in there” during the hard times.

Renee Jones, who recently reunited with her two young daughters and five grandchildren, teared up as she accepted her graduation certificate. She hopes to receive the 2011 Henry Buhl Scholarship so she can attend Metropolitan College of New York.

Buhl founded the nonprofit group in 1997.

“Henry, you’ve given us a chance to better our lives,” she said, and thanked crew supervisor Steve Martin for pushing her to reach her goals.

Jones said the program taught her the importance of relying on herself.

“After a certain time, they can hold you but so much. You have to hold yourself,” she said.

“I have a warm spot in my heart for them, ’cause I’ve been in their shoes,” said Steve Martin, who was homeless for 28 years before starting substance abuse treatment in 2006. “If I can do it, I know they can do it.”

In 2007, Steve Martin joined ACE, where today as crew supervisor, he assigns members their work shifts and periodically checks on them while they’re on their routes.

Thirty five to 40 ACE members clean Soho between Bleecker and Canal Sts., using about 1,000 bags per day to collect the trash. However, if the Soho business improvement district is approved, supplemental cleaning on Broadway will be handled by the new BID’s sanitation workers.

In June, ACE will stop doing trash removal specifically on Broadway, but will keep doing it in the rest of the neighborhood.

In addition, ACE provides window washing, snow removal and furniture moving for local businesses, such as McNally Jackson Books, Via Spiga and Baker Furniture.

“It’s very busy out there. There’s a lot of traffic and garbage, and we stay on top of that,” said Steve Martin.

“Most of the front of the restaurants were dirty, and [the street artists] would get kind of junky, too” recalled ACE graduate Jeff Daniels, who regularly cleaned Spring and Prince Sts.

ACE member Nadine Lomax, 43, said she gets satisfaction spending 35 hours a week sweeping Mercer and Greene Sts. in Soho. A parking garage on Mercer St. lets her use the facilities and offers her coffee in the mornings, and pedestrians often start up conversations.

“They’ll stop and say, ‘I really appreciate what you’re doing by cleaning our street,’ and that makes me feel good,” said Lomax.

At last week’s graduation ceremony, Jim Martin also honored current ACE member Edward Martinez, who recently found $600 in an envelope under a bench in Tribeca. Rather than keep it, Martinez handed the money over to the First Precinct.

“It was a difficult decision, since it was at a precarious point in his life, when he could have used that $600,” said Jim Martin. “It was one of the most noble things I’ve seen in my life.”

Graduating from Project Comeback, the staff stressed, is only the beginning of addicts’ path towards recovery. Graduates are encouraged to partake in Project Stay, an after-care program intended for ACE graduates needing further counseling and assistance in job hunting.

“Once they graduate the programs and they’re on their own, it’s tough,” said Steve Martin. “It’s up to the person himself if they want to keep clean and do the right thing.”

The organization also offers a scholarship, named after Buhl, to study human services at Metropolitan College of New York. According to ACE’s Web site, its graduates are eligible for the scholarship once they’re employed for at least six months and have “demonstrated stability and commitment to their vocational goals.”