Cover Stories

Joy Pacheco: Despite the Difficulty, Always Moving Forward

By John Addyman

This is a story about knees.

We all have them.

Generally, we like our knees. Sometimes, our knees don’t like us.

Most of your life, you don’t think about your knees. But your knees are always thinking about you. They know what you’re doing to them, what you’re thinking about doing with them and what you’d better not try doing with them.

Get to be a certain age and your knees might decide to forget about you — which is a problem. It’s hard to get out of a chair if your knees are out playing video games somewhere — you get the picture.

Joy Pacheco, 71, lives in Rochester in a large apartment that was scraped out of an old factory.

The brick walls are lined with artwork that has attracted her trained eye. The collection of pottery and her dressing style and the spaces she has created on the former industrial floor tell you how careful and particular she is.

And, oh, her knees.

“I went to Clara Barton School No. 3, that’s where they found out I had a knee problem,” she said, shifting in her chair at her dining room table to tell her story. “I went out for basketball and kept falling. My coached noticed it. My parents just felt that it was because I was clumsy. He alerted my parents, who took me to a doctor and found out I had dislocated kneecaps. They decided to wait until I was 12 before they operated. I was 11. They did both legs at the same time, so I ended up with casts from my ankle to my upper thighs.”

What followed was a year out of school and a home tutor.

On the day the casts came off, she learned that her lost year hadn’t ended.

“I had to learn to walk all over again,” she said. “I was walking in the casts and when they came off, I thought, ‘Well, this [walking] was going to be easy. Simple.’ I can remember the doctor telling me, when we finally got to the day of having the casts removed, ‘OK, Joy, I’m going to help you stand up, but it’s going to feel like you’re walking on your girlfriend’s legs.’ I said, ‘No, no. I’m fine. I’ve been walking around.’ And I came off the table and I almost collapsed. I had a period of time going through therapy learning to walk again.”

That’s enough of an episode to be a life-changer, but Pacheco has been through it more than once.

More operations. More learning to walk again. The challenges, the discomfort and pain, the feeling of being different but the heck with that — put an edge on the little girl’s courage.

“I was among the first group of African Americans to integrate Charlotte High School,” Pacheco said. “We had the option of going there and my mother came to me and asked, would I like to go to Charlotte? My sister didn’t want to go. I said, ‘I’ll go.’”

A local reverend and a group of African American men would follow her bus to school “to make sure we got there without incident,” Pacheco said.

Was she scared?


That was 1965.

From high school, Pacheco went to the Art Institute of Pittsburgh to study graphic design and commercial art. She got a job right out of school helping design characters and boards for a CompuLearn education system. She came back to Rochester to work for Kodak for a while, then found a guy who was going to law school in California and followed him there.

The pair ended up in Texas and married. He was in the Army Reserve.

“Once a month he’d put on the uniform and go to meetings,” she said. “He told me, ‘You’d never make it in the military.’”

Big mistake.

“I went to a recruiter the next day,” she said.

She joined the Civilian Acquired Skills program and became part of the last group of WACs (Women’s Army Corps) before the army integrated and men and women trained together. After training, she and her husband went back to Pittsburgh and Pacheco went back to school and now had a new goal — she yearned for the ROTC program at Duquesne University — she wanted to be an officer in the Army Reserve.

But to go into officers’ training, she had to pass a physical.

And those knees were there, waiting.

“They saw the scars on my knees and told me, ‘You can’t do this.’ I was devastated. I couldn’t be commissioned,” she said.

But she had gone through basic training without a hitch when she joined up. She had passed that physical.

Pacheco appealed to her professor of military science at Duquesne and after some file-cabinet searches, her original physicals showed up. “I had been the highest-scoring female on the physical therapy test,” she said, tapping her finger on the table.

She went into officers’ basic training in Arizona.

“I suffered at the physical part. We were out on three-day exercises in the mountains and I was able to do it, but my knees were suffering. I came out of that as a first lieutenant, and after 12 years in the Army Reserve, I left with a rank of captain. I worked for a PsyOps unit in Key West, Virginia and Germany, I loved it,” she said.

Finally back in Rochester in the late 1980s, Pacheco worked at WROC selling TV ads and found a career in banking soon thereafter, specializing in corporate cash management for HSBC, Key Bank, Northstar and Fleet banks. She eased away from corporate life to set up her own lockbox management company, getting started with five friends, her mom and dad manning the processing positions.

“They worked for me without pay until I got it off the ground,” she said.

And, she discovered something.

Untapped resource

“I found an untapped resource,” she said. “I could hire people who were disabled, who were retired, people looking for something to do to fill their time and that worked great. One of the highlights was a woman who had Parkinson’s. She had lost her job and became homebound in a wheelchair. She was just withering. I talked to her about a part-time position.

“That first time I talked to her she was excited. The second time, she was withdrawn and said she wasn’t sure she could do it. I said, ‘Well, why don’t you try? We’ll make accommodations.’ And so she did. She was taking an RTS service bus and my office was upstairs on East Ave — the bus would pull up, we’d have somebody meet her at the curb. We would get her upstairs, which was interesting because we had no elevator. I told her she could work from home, but she wanted to come to the office every day.

“That really changed her life. When she contracted this disease, her husband left her. She was alone, she wasn’t interacting with anyone.”

For what Pacheco did for her employees, her little company was awarded the 2006 Regional Employer of the Year award from the Rochester Area Employment Network.

Her career continued to branch out to new responsibilities. She sold her business and went back to banking. She got a certificate to become someone who stages homes for sale. She was a vice president at RTS/LiftLine/Access providing transportation services to the disabled community.

And recently, she started a moving company, specializing in senior adult moving, a service for people who are downsizing to leave their big old homes to join a retirement community. It’s a job that is not without its challenges.

“I do a lot of hand-holding,” she said. “I deal with the issues that are on the front end of the move prior to moving; people who have lived in a home for 40-50 years moving into a one- or two-bedroom retirement – senior living community and wanting to take everything, not wanting to part with anything.”

“We worked with a delightful woman who was a professor at a local college. She had so many books — unbelievable. I’ve never seen so many books. It took us four days just to pack up books. She was moving to a two-bedroom facility. I had the conversation with her, ‘You know, I don’t think you’re going to have enough room for everything.’ She said, ‘Don’t worry about it. I sleep in a chair. I’m going to sleep in one bedroom and the other bedroom is going to be devoted to all my books.’ We must have taken 75 to 100 boxes and put them in storage for her.”

The last career?

In the last 20 years, Pacheco became a serious long-distance cyclist. She ran on those knees, preparing for completing a marathon. She installed a stationary bike and learned to love spinning on that bike — covering a whole lot of miles but not going anywhere, staying in great cycling shape even in the dead of winter.

Eventually, she had to give up running — those knees.

Right now, she’s working on certification to teach spinning at a local YMCA, doing one more thing she loves, reaching out to help people in her many special ways.

“I hope to inspire older women, especially women who are having issues relative to becoming more active. I think spinning is a start. It’s not easy at first, but if you come back for the second class and the third, each gets better and you get to the point where you really start to enjoy it,” she said. “I starting spinning as a way to train for cycling, I enjoy it and it’d like to see other women enjoy it as well. This is a way we can support one another, especially for women who might want to do long-distance cycling. This is another kind of self-improvement, to challenge yourself, expand yourself.”

Pacheco has lived a life of facing challenges and busting through them, of offering to help others in unique ways, and to go through life showing all of us what’s possible with a little help from friends — and knees.