Joann Santiago has always been working with young people; it's what keeps her going. In 1996, Santiago, a community member, who had never held an office job or worked in youth development, took a part-time parent coordinator position at FYI. Members of the community who recognized Santiago as a leader had encouraged her to interview for the job, and in fact, her future executive directors had to convince her to accept it. From that day forward Santiago's presence has been constant and her commitment unwavering. Over the past five years, her innumerable contributions to FYI have ranged from directing summer programming to coordinating the mentoring program to serving as the agency's newsletter editor. Santiago's positive influence and overwhelming dedication has reverberated through the agency, as she has climbed to a position of Program Director.
Santiago's strong connection to the Washington Heights' community greatly aided FYI as an agency, particularly in the early years, as her presence validated FYI. "Joann as a person had a stronger reputation than FYI as an organization," wrote her Executive Director, Rodney Fuller. "Her involvement gave us instant credibility." Her connection to the community has remained strong, helping her to pull in volunteers and participants to FYI, thereby greatly strengthening the organization.
Santiago is currently in charge of all direct service, including afterschool programs, recruitment, interns, and the youth council. Her ability to effectively coordinate the varied and wide-ranging service programs has allowed FYI to expand its program, both in the service arena and beyond. This commitment to service extends to Santiago's family life, as her son has completed 700 hours of community service, and her twin daughters have logged 1500 hours of community service each – the most of any young people in the history of FYI.
For Santiago, it is not just the service component, but also the opportunity to work closely with youth. As an informal, but significant mentor to the young people, Santiago says that she also learns from them. She knows that, although she is one of the oldest people in the program, when the young people look at her they see a friend.