Alex Alazraki, 93, delivers a pack to executive assistant Rose...

Alex Alazraki, 93, delivers a pack to executive assistant Rose Sanicola at Abilities! in Albertson. (Jan. 27, 2012) Credit: Heather Walsh

Alex Alazraki, who turned 93 in January, still gets ready every weekday morning and puts on a hat for his 9 a.m. shift delivering packages as a stockroom clerk in Albertson.

"I couldn't retire," he said, adding that even when he has time off, he would rather be at work.

In fact, Alazraki has been working full time for 60 years in various positions for the same employer, a nonprofit organization now known as Abilities!, which provides training and job placement services for the disabled.

Alazraki, who was born without fully formed legs, walks on his stumps slowly but deliberately as he pushes his delivery cart. He lifts and passes out packages with arms that end in stumps above the elbow. He does not use prosthetic limbs, which he said he tried before on his legs but kept falling down.

Referring to previous positions that also required physical activity, he said, "I was very strong." He quickly added with a grin, "They say I still am."

As Abilities! celebrates three major milestones this year, chief executive John Kemp described Alazraki as "the embodiment of the organization. A person who might be easily overlooked and neglected is a contributing member of society and a valued employee. He's been proven to be as loyal as any employer could ever hope for."

The organization is marking the 50th year of the Henry Viscardi School, an accredited academic program for about 200 students in pre-K through high school who have disabilities.

It's also the 60th year of the umbrella organization, which serves about 2,000 people.

And its late founder, Henry "Hank" Viscardi Jr., would have turned 100 this year.

"He passed away three years ago, but we're celebrating his 100th birthday" throughout the year, said Kemp, who was also born without fully formed arms and legs and uses four prosthetic limbs.


Crossing paths with founder

Alazraki was born in East Harlem and lived on East 118th Street with his parents. His father worked long hours as a waiter, and his mother was a homemaker, he said.

Of his childhood growing up in Coney Island and Flatbush, Alazraki recalled that he had home-school sessions with a teacher three days a week.

He remembers vividly that one of those visits fell on Saturdays, which he couldn't stand because he wanted to be out with his friends. Although he endured taunting -- "kids are kids" -- he played with his younger brother and neighbors. "I played marbles, punchball," he said. He even learned how to throw a football.

He graduated from James Madison High School in Flatbush. In his 20s, Alazraki earned a little money selling newspapers and learned how to drive.

But he was at a low point in his life, discouraged about finding full-time work, when his path crossed with Viscardi's.

Viscardi, who was born with twisted stumps for legs, lived in a Manhattan hospital ward until he was 6 years old. His life changed at the age of 27 when he strapped on prosthetic legs for the first time.

Taking to heart his doctor's suggestion to repay him by helping others like him, Viscardi founded what would become Abilities! Inc. in a vacant garage in West Hempstead in 1952. The goal of the employment program was to show that the disabled, if just given the chance, could work.

Landing his first job

Alazraki's cousin had read an article about Viscardi and told Alazraki to call him. The day after the two met, Viscardi called him "and said he had a job for me," Alazraki recalled.

Alazraki was one of the five original employees. "I had been turned down for so many jobs," he told Newsday in an interview in 1993.

Kemp said Alazraki often tells people that had "Viscardi not given him a chance, he thinks he would have died out of boredom or frustration."

Alazraki recalled working alongside other people with disabilities -- one man who was blind and other workers who used wheelchairs. He worked in shipping, as a product technician and later became acting supervisor of maintenance for the facility.

Alazraki said he was devoted to Viscardi, who he said never dreamed of having him work anyplace else. Alazraki raised three children with his first wife and has three grandchildren and one great-grandchild. More than 30 years ago he married Joan, 61. The couple lives in a house on the campus.

Alazraki is accustomed to surprising people with what he can do without hands.

Theo Vazanellis, his longtime friend and former boss at Abilities!, said diners at a restaurant would watch Alazraki spinning spaghetti on a fork. Alazraki even served as a lifeguard when Viscardi went in the swimming pool, he said. "He can swim, no problem," Vazanellis said.

Alazraki said, "I always felt there's a way to do something." He demonstrated how he combs his hair, by holding the comb on a table surface and putting his head to the comb.


A source of inspiration

Over the years, students have looked up to Alazraki as a pioneer, said Mark Turan, 39, a former student at the Viscardi school.

"He would always talk to the students and had their respect," said Turan, who has cerebral palsy and is an executive associate in the Abilities! president's office. "He was one of us. He was a person with a disability who grew up in a time when this was not easy to do."

Though Viscardi is no longer here, Kemp is looking forward to another milestone with Alazraki.

"I want to be here when he celebrates his 103rd birthday," Kemp said. "If more employers were inclined to find their Alexes, they would have an even better workforce."

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