UP CLOSE: In search of a dream

After a life of hardship, Bronxite finds opportunity in the Adirondacks

Phillip Brandel poses with some of his leather work outside the Lake Placid News and Adirondack Daily Enterprise offices in Saranac Lake on Tuesday, April 20. (News photo — Elizabeth Izzo)

LAKE PLACID — Phillip Brandel has been through it all, and now he’s trying to start a business and help others like him.

Brandel, 27, now lives in Lake Placid. He grew up in the south Bronx, and from the moment he was born, he’s had to fight to survive.

“I was born with the crack and methadone babies of the 1990s. I actually died twice as a newborn, and I suffered a lot of health issues growing up,” he said.

When he was a kid, he was taken away from his birth parents and put into foster care. It should’ve been a safe place for him. Instead, he was abused by his foster parents.

English isn’t Brandel’s first language, and paired with the abuse, he found it hard to meet people and develop friendships when he was growing up.

Samples of Phillip Brandel’s leather work (News photo — Elizabeth Izzo)

“I developed a lot of social and mental issues because of it,” he said. “My childhood … things were very, very difficult for me growing up.”

The abuse at home got so bad that Brandel ran away.

“At the age of 14, 15… I kind of like left the house and was living on the streets, eating out of garbage cans, begging people for food, getting beat up on the way to school,” he said.

Brandel saw friends get shot by police or rival gangs. He said he was stabbed once while going to school because he walked into a neighborhood while wearing a red coat, not knowing the color was that of a rival gang.

“For the most part, I didn’t really share my story with anyone,” he said. “No one knew that I was getting abused. No one knew that I was eating out of trash cans. I had too much humiliation behind asking for help. I figured that I’d figure it out.”

Getting help

Things started looking up when he got in contact with the Fiver Children’s Foundation, an organization that provides kids with character-building programs. It helped him with college prep and brought him on camping trips to upstate New York.

“They partnered me with a mentor who really … he did more for me than he ever realized. He never knew what was going on,” he said.

He was also paired with a mentor while at the Eagle Academy for Young Men. His mentors pushed him to study robotics and software development, and to keep focusing on his education. It worked. Brandel said that when the time came, he applied to more than 30 colleges and was accepted to all of them. He knew he wanted to get as far away from New York City as possible, so ultimately he decided to try to get into Paul Smith’s College through its Higher Education Opportunity Program, which provides financial aid to low-income and underserved students. There was a problem, though; he didn’t have enough money to get to Paul Smiths.

“My mentor, Jim, he was like … ‘Here’s your ticket. You’re leaving tomorrow,'” Brandel said. “I didn’t look back after that.”

New beginning

At Paul Smith’s College, Brandel was able to learn all kinds of new things related to the hospitality industry and environmental sciences. But recovering from the trauma he endured while growing up wasn’t as easy as just getting out of New York City.

“It left a lot of scars in my head. I couldn’t sleep at night. I was waking up at night drenched in sweat,” he said.

The trauma also impacted his dating life. There was a moment when he experienced what’s called night terrors, and it caused him to become violent with a girlfriend while he was still asleep, having a nightmare about abuse he endured as a child.

After college, still living in the Tri-Lakes area, he continued to struggle.

“I have no money, I literally came up here when I was 17 with two duffle bags, and my entire life was in it,” he said. “I really came up here for new opportunities.”

Brandel had trouble finding a job that wasn’t seasonal. He also didn’t have a car, and public transportation wasn’t reliable enough.

“I couldn’t hold a job because I didn’t have a car, so I kept on getting fired,” he said.

There were times when he found himself trying to walk from Saranac Lake to Lake Placid during the winter. The constant job losses meant he couldn’t afford rent, even if he could find an affordable place to live.

“This area isn’t really built for me. I’m not upset about it, but I learned that I had to change the things I do to survive,” he said.

Brandel said he couldn’t find a job in Saranac Lake, so he moved to Lake Placid after finding a place to live there, but he was evicted because he had a hard time keeping a job. The jobs he found were either seasonal or the jobs didn’t pay him enough. Things got worse because he had a compromised immune system, and his health started to decline.

Brandel said one Lake Placid family helped him out. Because of the Holdereids, who own and operate the Golden Arrow Lakeside Resort, he was able to find another place to live.

“I told them what was happening and that I needed help. I didn’t know what to do,” he said. “There were times when I just wanted to give up because I didn’t know what to do.”

Reevaluating life

When Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered mass-industry closures last March because of the coronavirus pandemic, Brandel was one of millions of people who were laid off.

“I took that moment to kind of reevaluate my life and figure out what I want to do,” he said.

He found himself, like so many others, getting paid more on unemployment than he’d been paid while working. He decided to enroll in the state’s Self Employment Assistance Program, which helps train eligible unemployed people on how to start their own business.

“For most people, coronavirus really hurt them. For me, it was a blessing in disguise,” he said. “Because of COVID, I was able to pay off all that back rent that I owed. Because of COVID, I managed to get all the licensing and pay for everything I needed to start my own business.”

Brandel said he wanted to establish “Exclusively ADK” to give himself a liveable wage and help others who are struggling.

“I found the more I shared my story and the more I was diving into what I love … I just feel better overall as a person,” he said. “The purpose of this business going forward, I want to give people that same feeling. I want to start investing into my community and the people that make up the community so they can start reaching for their aspirations. I want to provide a safe space so people feel comfortable to fail. I want to show people that if I can do it, so can you.”

Right now, Brandel is working out of his apartment, using a CNC machine to make engraved leather keychains under Exclusively ADK. Eventually, he wants to move into using more sustainable materials, like reclaimed wood and recyclables.

“My goal is to be 80% environmentally friendly,” he said.

Brandel is still getting the business up and running, and more details about his business should be coming soon. He’s had some customers already, including Cocoa & Dough Co. in Lake Placid to produce keychains with the company’s characters.

Even though it wasn’t easy, Brandel said he’s had more opportunities to succeed in the Adirondacks than he’s had anywhere else, and he’d encourage others who come from the same background as him to try living up here.

“I managed to open up a business,” he said. “In New York City, I never would’ve had that opportunity. Up here, I believe the Adirondacks are a place that not only can you dream, you can achieve your dreams.”