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December 2001

Andrés Garcia - Up By His Own Bootstraps

by Joseph RADDER

If there’s anybody out there who believes it’s no longer possible for a poor person to be successful in America, they should listen to Andrés Garcia’s story.

He was born into poverty in Puerto Rico and his father disappeared when Andrés was one year old. His mother then had to go to work as a maid for $30 a month. In spite of these meager wages, she sent $20 a month to support her children, now living with an aunt and uncle. “I can remember standing on the side of a mountain when I was about three years old, crying for my mother,” Garcia said.

“We were so poor that I, along with many other children, had stomach worms, caused by malnutrition and drinking unboiled water. We had no running water, no electricity.”

“When I was about 14 we had a funeral mass for my father, believing he was dead. My mother remarried and my stepfather and I had problems from the start. He was very mean to me. Furthermore, I was trying to cope with the change from living on a farm to living in a housing project. It was too much for me, and within three months I was a drug addict.”

While still very young, Garcia lost the sight of one eye fighting over drugs. “In spite of my drug addiction, I was able to achieve a 4.0 average in high school. But soon I was missing some classes and back into the old pattern of living.

When I was about 16, my father returned to Puerto Rico, surprising everyone. He had been living in the States. He soon convinced me to go back to live with him in New York City.” As would be expected, it wasn’t long before Andrés was into the New York drug scene. “I ended up homeless,” he said, “sleeping in abandoned buildings.”

In 1968 he went back to Puerto Rico and married his high school sweetheart. “She had relatives in Buffalo, so instead of going back to New York City we wound up here,” Garcia told us.

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A younger Andy Garcia. Andy Garcia and his daughter Melissa.
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Andy’s wife Ellen, son Alan, daughter Melissa and Andy. Andy (far right) with his mom, brothers, sisters and their children in Puerto Rico.

“My first job was in housekeeping (a euphemism for scrubbing floors) at Kenmore Mercy Hospital. I could speak only a few words of English, but on this kind of job I could get by. But then came a bus strike and I couldn’t get to work so I lost my job.”

From 1968 to 1970 he was drug-free, but then, in 1970, he met an old friend who was an addict and he began using heroin again.

Later that year, Garcia entered a drug treatment program at Sisters Hospital. “Sister Mary Charles, the president of the hospital, liked me for some reason. She took me under her wing and became my guardian angel. The good sister made me a client aide in the hospital’s Methadone Maintenance Unit.”

After working at Sisters for a year, Garcia went to Villa Maria College. His limited English was a real handicap, so he would go to the downtown library every day after classes to study first and second grade English grammar books. “At home, I would watch Sesame Street and the Electric Company,” he said. And though these programs were intended for young children, this determined college student watched them religiously. Through the elementary English lessons taught by these programs and the basic grammar books, he was able to learn the language he speaks so well today.

In 1973 he received his associates degree in liberal arts from Villa Maria. He was hired by the Community Action Organization as a drug counselor in the county’s Drug Research and Treatment Clinic on Goodrich Street, a job for which he was uniquely equipped through his own former addiction.

Four years later he would attend Medaille College where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Human Services in 1979. While at Medaille, he worked as a Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor at Sisters Hospital.

After graduation from Medaille, he became Clinical Supervisor of the CAO Drug Abuse and Treatment Clinic. Then in 1981 he became Project Director of Buffalo’s Hispanic Substance Abuse Program.

“We cleaned up the entire West Side,” Garcia remembers. “It used to be a regular drug ‘supermarket’, now this neighborhood was as clean as a whistle.”

During this period he also taught Substance Abuse as a Public Health Problem at the City Campus of Erie Community College.

In recognition of his work fighting drug abuse he was elected a Citizen of the Year in 1984 by the Buffalo News.

It was about this time that Mayor Jimmy Griffin recognized his work by making Andrés Garcia Division Director of the City of Buffalo’s Substance Abuse Services, a job he held for five years before he was recruited by Columbus Hospital to head up their Chemical Dependency Services.

At Columbus, growth came fast for this young man, not yet middle-aged. Starting at Columbus Hospital as a Vice President, he was soon promoted to Senior Vice President. Then, in 1994 he became President and CEO of Columbus Hospital.

The hospital was near bankruptcy at that time, but Garcia quickly developed a program to restore financial stability, and in two years Columbus had paid off its entire debt.

After he was instrumental in the merger of Columbus into Buffalo General Hospital (later the Kaleida Health Group). The hospital became Columbus Community Health Center, which operates today in a beautiful new facility on Niagara Street. Today he holds the title of Vice President of Community and Government Relations of Kaleida Health.

Andrés Garcia’s community involvement history lists 26 different organizations including board memberships at Medaille College, Shea’s Performing Arts Center, the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy, the Greater Buffalo Council of the Boy Scouts of America, the Niagara Frontier AIDS Alliance, the United Way and twenty others. He has been chair, president or vice president of four of these organizations.

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Handing out toys at the 3 Kings Celebration. Accepting $1.5 million from Congressman Quinn for Columbus Community Health Center. Pictured from left: Jack Quinn, Andy Garcia, Vincent Mufoletto (Chairman, Board), John Friedlander (CEO) and Paul Hogan.
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Mayor Anthony Masiello and Andy.

Awards and honors fill his office walls at Columbus Community Health Center. He has received 19 awards since his college days including the New York State Governor’s Award for Hispanic Americans of Distinction, the Brotherhood/Sisterhood Award of the National Conference of Christians and Jews and the Medaille College Personal Achievement Award.

Indeed, Andrés Garcia has dedicated his life to community service. His rapid advancement from poverty to positions of great responsibility indicates that his supervisors and his peers have been quick to recognize his unique combination of talent and drive.

His tireless dedication to helping people deal with poverty and addiction clearly stems from a very personal understanding of these problems based on his own experience.

Today he is a strong voice for the needs of Hispanics and Buffalo’s lower West Side.

As his biography states, “Although he does more for others in a week than many people do in a lifetime, he is driven by the conviction that, as long as someone is still hurting, he has not yet done enough.”

Truly, Western New York is a much better community thanks to Andrés Garcia.         

Joseph Radder is a freelance writer.


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