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The Star-Ledger

Childhood Pain Leads Man To Life Of Service


March 16, 2004
Copyright ©2004 The Star-Ledger. All rights reserved.

Jose Baez has only one memory of his father.

He was 4-years old and just splattered shoe polish all over his hands in the bathroom of the tiny apartment he shared with his family in Santurce, Puerto Rico.

He locked the door and clasped his ears with his sticky hands as he heard his father yell, then bang on the door. Baez opened it, expecting to be punished or hit for making a mess.

Instead, his father gently picked him up, set him on his lap, took out a clean towel and wiped his small hands clean.

It was the last time Baez saw his father. Jose's mother would take him and his three siblings away to escape marital problems that became too much for her to handle, he said.

The 42-year old Rockaway man still feels the hardships of growing up without a dad. Perhaps, he said, that is why he has such a strong connection to the boys at St. Peter's Orphanage in Denville, a specialized residential treatment facility for boys between the ages of 9 and 18. Baez said he knows the pain they are going through.

"It brings me closer to them. When they look at me, they know what I'm feeling - they know that I care. It's difficult. There's a part of you missing. But I hear them," Baez said.

He first heard them 19 years ago, when he became a direct child care worker at the orphanage. Since then, he has become the orphanage's program coordinator. His co-workers say he spends 12-hour days trying to meet the needs of each boy, becoming a father figure to many of them.

Twelve-year-old Maurice Jackson sometimes can't believe how similar Baez is to his own father, who died in 1997.

"My dad taught me how to walk away from a bad situation. Mr. Jose teaches me how to walk away, just like my dad," Maurice said while he played basketball with Baez - a pastime he also shared with his father. "It feels real good to have someone around who loves you and wants to help you."

Even though many of the boys at the orphanage are amazed by his natural ways with them, Baez didn't always want to devote his life to helping kids.

He moved to New Jersey from Puerto Rico with his mother and siblings when he was 10-years old. With a strong interest in science, Baez first studied nuclear engineering at the University of Michigan after he graduated from Dover High School.

Although he tried to find a job at Picatinny Arsenal's nuclear program, he first found work at the orphanage - and he never left.

"For the first time, I had a job that made me feel I was doing something meaningful - that has some value to it," said Baez, who has been the program coordinator at the orphanage for about three years. "I've always been able to relate to kids and I ended up loving the job. You can't help loving the kids. They are great."

For many of the boys who have lived much of their lives also without parents, he has a been a father figure, a mentor and a friend.

"He is like a father to me. He's always been there for me to talk to, and he's always very supportive," said 15-year-old James Farace, who is going back to his home in South River in June. "I'm looking forward to it (going home), but Jose has made the experience here easier. He feels like home," he said.

Wayne Straway, 13, of Jefferson said, "Mr. Jose is the closest thing to family that I've ever had."

His co-workers noticed how Baez always remembers the small things that are important to each boy. They say he works more than 12 hours almost every day as well as on weekends.

"He's the most amazing multi-tasker. The care of our kids is his life," said Kelly McNamara, executive director at the orphanage.

"He maintains the kind of care a parent would have with their own children - making sure they take their medicine, seeing them off to school, getting them to their dentist appointments. He does it all," McNamara said of Baez, who has been married for 13 years and has an 8-year-old son, Bryan.

"He's got more knowledge than a lot of people with doctorates that I've seen," said Eric Herschman, consulting psychologist and clinical supervisor at the orphanage.

"He goes to the basketball games and their award ceremonies. He's really a mentor to them, and he's made it his life mission," Herschman said.

McNamara said that most of the boys at the orphanage have never had a father in their lives, and that Baez is that father figure for them.

Baez said that even though he cannot take the place of the boys' fathers, he strives to be the kind of person they can trust and count on.

"They do have families and I don't want to see them lose that connection. But I am going to care for them as a father would."

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