From East Coast Co-ops to West Coast Communities

photo by Paul Neevel

PHOTO BY PAUL NEEVEL

Story by Lily Bussel

Sometimes it’s toothbrushes. The kind made for detention facilities. August Sabini knows who to look for—young people, usually carrying sleeping bags and backpacks. Other days he hands out deodorant, socks or snacks. As part of Sabini’s work, he walks around downtown or by the bus station, providing information about resources for homeless youth.

Sabini is an outreach worker at New Roads in Eugene—an organization offering support and services for homeless teenagers.

Sabini says hall like ‘hawl’—a thick New York accent permeates his speech. Sturdy, black-rimmed frames, like the courtesy glasses handed out at 3-D movie viewings, rest on his nose. His rolled up faded flannel sleeve reveals a small tattoo: it means harmony in Kanji, he says.

Sabini is in his early 60s. He grew up in Skyview Acres—a co-op in Rockland County, N.Y. In 1946 Alfred Hassler and Iver Iverson with the financial assistance of two Quakers bought a 152-acre farm and founded Skyview. A communist thread ran through the co-op: Hassler had served three years in prison as a conscientious objector and Skyview was an integrated community.

Skyview and its members played influential roles in Sabini’s life. Eliot Asinof, whom he calls “Elly,” was a minor-league baseball player and the author of Eight Men Out”—a book on the Chicago Black Sox World Series scandal. Elly who was “pretty much left,” Sabini says, used to rent a house in Skyview during the summer, serve meatballs down at the baseball field and teach the kids how to play ball. One of Skyview’s founders, Margaret Lawrence, a famous child psychiatrist, was also another influence.

Despite the variety of job titles Sabini has held, he has worked in some field of mental health for most of his career.

Sabini grew up with an awareness of mental health: “To me a nervous breakdown was like having pneumonia when I was a kid…. It was like another disease that happened that was real serious…. A couple of parents in the neighborhood had those [nervous breakdowns].”

After high school Sabini was drafted. His Quaker faith led him to choose an alternate form of service and he worked as an attendant at Harlem Valley State Hospital in New York City.

“I was totally unprepared for this…I had no clue. I remember the first thing I noticed when I walked in on the ward, I worked with geriatric medical…there’s a man standing next to the door in a puddle of pee, his pee, with a mop.”

Working at the hospital provided Sabini with a closer perspective on mental health. Everyone in the geriatric unit was mentally ill. There were some sadistic people working at the hospital, Sabini says. He remembers unqualified personnel distributing medication, a doctor who used to sit in his office doing The New York Times puzzle and working with only one oxygen tent and four patients who may need it.

Sabini, the son of Italian and Scotch-Irish parents, lived on the hospital grounds in an all Black dormitory. When Sabini and a friend were arrested for drugs on a phony warrant, he saw the economic and social inequalities perpetuated by the prison system. This experience as well as his work at Harlem Valley radicalized him, he says.

“After I got popped I pretty much lost my mind for awhile.”

Sabini finished his conscientious objector service at a nursing home closer to Skyview, traveled around the country and learned to play the saxophone.

“I think it saved me. Saxophone will take everything you’ve got…everything you feel…saxophone can handle.”

In 1980 Sabini took a job at a ‘cottage’—a treatment center housing the mentally handicapped in Nyack, N.Y. Sabini was a childcare worker—making sure kids showered, monitoring if they performed well in school, keeping kids—many of whom lacked social skills—out of fights.

Sabini and his wife Leslie were going broke in Westchester County, though. Sabini’s fellow musicians whom he was playing saxophone with weren’t finishing making their CDs.

 

Ten years ago Sabini and Leslie, together with their daughter, Rose, decided to move to Eugene.

Initially there were no jobs in Eugene; Sabini volunteered at New Roads working with homeless youth and a job eventually opened up.

He has an incredible knack and empathy for talking to teenagers, Leslie says.

One of the most rewarding parts of working at New Roads is its intimacy, Sabini says. “Intimacy is…it’s wonderful. Growing up in that co-op where there was a lot of intimacy…it’s like, we’re family. So I get that same kind of intimacy to some extent with these youth.”

Sabini is about 5’3”. He pulls on an electric yellow jacket; taking his time as he walks to his bike, preferring cycling to work rather than driving.

“I may not be able to do anything else, really,” he says reflecting on his career, “this is what I should be doing.”

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