He looks like your average Joe.
Joe Sciacca, 64, is a retired roofer with a shaggy silver goatee and wind-tousled, salt-and-pepper hair. He was born in Brooklyn, raised in Roosevelt; he served in Vietnam, then returned home to marry a local girl and settle down in Smithtown.
But when he speaks, with his Long Island accent dotted with Brooklyn highlights, the stories he tells are anything but average.
Sciacca has spent about two months each year since 1998 traveling around Vietnam and handing out envelopes filled with money, much of it his own, to those afflicted by disease and poverty.
“I know literally hundreds of people with leprosy,” he said casually, while sitting on a shade-covered bench on the lawn of his house.
Sciacca’s story, now encapsulated in a documentary titled “Ordinary Joe”, made its Long Island silver screen debut Friday at the Long Island International Film Expo in Bellmore. Hofstra professor and 14-time Emmy award winner Carlo Gennarelli produced, edited and directed the film, which chronicles one of the trips Sciacca has taken to Vietnam.
“Joe is not your typical church-goer, do-gooder,” Gennarelli said. “Here’s this guy who has no business, you would think, traveling around the world to help other people.”
WHO IS JOE?
Looking for adventure, Sciacca enlisted in the Army after graduating from high school.
“I joined because I had nothing going for myself,” he said.
After returning from Vietnam, Sciacca cycled through numerous jobs. He owned a bar and worked as a butcher before settling into his career as a roofer. He married his wife, Cathy, in 1976.
In 1998, Sciacca planned what he essentially expected to be a vacation. He was going to return to Nha Trang, the city where he served as an orderly in the 8th Field Hospital from March 1968 to April 1969.
Sciacca was seeking out two Vietnamese friends he worked with during the war. He put advertisements in the paper and on television, but he did not find either of his friends. Instead he stumbled across what would become his life’s work.
“I never expected it to be what it is,” said Cathy Sciacca, who has accompanied Joe on about half of his trips. “It sort of took a life of its own.”
It started with getting to know one or two strangers, who then introduced him to others. On and on it went over about 20 visits. It has reached the extent that when he goes back later this year, Sciacca will be visiting some 600 “friends and family.”
Initially, the money he gave away was his own, but after hearing about his work people have started to give Sciacca donations to take to Vietnam. Sciacca puts the donations in envelopes with the names and addresses those of who gave the money printed on the front, and hands the envelopes directly to someone in Vietnam.
It is not an organized charity, nor does he ever want it to be.
“I’m obliged to share and I’m glad to do it; that’s part of being in the family over there,” Sciacca said.
IN THE DOCUMENTARY
Gennarelli’s film was made during Sciacca’s 2010 trip. It depicts Sciacca traveling through back alleys and across country roads to find those most in need of his help.
Among the scenes that made the film’s final cut are those that show Sciacca having a beer with a man who has leprosy, playing with children who have physical deformities and giving a comforting touch to a man who is contorted into what looks like a human pretzel.
All the while, “Ordinary Joe” is delivering wisps of New York bred street smarts in a voice that quickly becomes his trademark. And like a true New Yorker, Sciacca even finds time to argue with some Vietnamese taxi drivers.
Sciacca ultimately travels from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) to Hanoi, making various stops along the way. The film climaxes in Hanoi when he finds Miss Vihn, a beggar girl with a watermelon-sized tumor protruding out of the left side of her jaw. Sciacca had previously tried to arrange for Vihn to have surgery in a U.S. hospital, but the plan fell through.
So far, “Ordinary Joe” has been accepted into 12 film festivals and has won several awards including three for best feature documentary, one for best sound design and one “Extraordinary Achievement” award.
Gennarelli said he is currently looking to lock down a distribution deal, and he hopes to release the film on DVD and get it on Netflix by early next year.
NO ‘ORDINARY JOE’
Perhaps the defining feature of Sciacca’s character is that he is something of a blue-collar philosopher.
Sciacca spends a lot of time trying to figure out why he does what he does, which is intertwined with dealing with his guilt. He said he feels guilty that he initially went to Vietnam, and continues to go back, to satisfy a need for adventure, and even though he is giving, he feels that he is still getting the better end of the deal.
“I get more out of it than I’ve given, there’s no way around it,” Sciacca says in the film. “That’s your penance and reward at the same time.”
Perhaps because he gets so much out of it, Sciacca said, he will continue to travel to Vietnam each year. One of his favorite phrases to say in Vietnamese roughly translates to, “I live [in the United States], but I’m alive [in Vietnam].”
Though Sciacca no longer runs his roofing business, Gennarelli described “Ordinary” Joe’s extraordinary compassion, saying: “He’s here fixing people’s roofs in the States, and he goes there and he’s maybe fixing a hole in his heart.”