Moving from your native country is a hard-enough adjustment for any new immigrant, but when you have three young children to look after and a violent and abusive husband to contend with, the difficulty is seriously magnified.
That was the situation Elisangela Dos Santos found herself in soon after arriving in the United States from her native Brazil in 1998 and settling in Danbury. She joined the large immigrant community already established there — mostly domestic cleaners, construction workers and landscapers — a community that held the promise of employment and a better life.
But the fly in the ointment was her husband, a man so dangerous, she says, that the police were often called to the marital home. Filing a restraining order, she was finally able to divorce him after 12 years of unhappy marriage.
As her newly ex-husband returned to what she calls “the homeland” to start a tomato cultivation business, Elisangela remained in Danbury, barely able to speak English and still with three children to support. But determined to show she could make it as a single mom, that her kids would not lose out, she wanted them to enjoy all the opportunities that their new life in the U.S. afforded. So one daughter was enrolled in karate, another in music and dance classes and her son, meanwhile, got to play soccer — but all of this had to be juggled. She would end her day shift as a cleaner at 7 p.m. and ensure dinner was on the table, before leaving for her night shift as a janitor shortly afterwards. Life was unbelievably tough.
A turning point came when one of her early employers, whose home in Lake Waccabuc Elisangela cleaned every Saturday, suggested that by bringing other cleaners on board she could form something akin to a cooperative. (She also sponsored Elisangela for a green card, which led later to full citizenship.) The lady in question — for whom Elisangela still works some 23 years later, and whom she says has always treated her “like family” — even printed business cards for her. Elisangela’s Cleaning Service, as the business is called, was born.
Working with a team of four or more cleaners, Elisangela now looks after more than 60 houses throughout southern Westchester. She arranges the schedules and drives her cleaners to their various houses or apartments, taking a modest share of their fee as a commission. New business comes by word of mouth. “It’s like a web,” she says. “One person uses us; they tell all their friends.”
Of course, there is cleaning — a quick dusting and a cursory sweep — and there is real cleaning and, by all accounts, Elisangela’s team brings real quality to the job. Elisangela herself takes the time to listen to a client’s needs, what’s especially important to them. What’s more, she and her team don’t confine themselves to regular cleaning but act more as housekeepers. Need an item of dry-cleaning picked up or delivered? Have something for storage or need help moving your house? Elisangela is there for you.
As well as removing dust from those impossible-to-get-at corners, or cleaning up immaculately after rowdy teenagers have all but trashed your pristine home following an illicit party, she will rearrange furniture, reorganize closets and generally “make people’s lives easier for them.” As she puts it, “I’m not a kind of ‘I don’t wash, I don’t fold, I don’t do this, it’s not in my job description,’ kind of person. I’m there to help in whichever way I can.”
But while she was busy helping others, Elisangela started to need some help herself. Working all hours, eating poorly and paying virtually no attention to her own health, after giving birth to a daughter with her second husband, her weight spiraled to nearly 200 pounds, which — standing at only 5’1” — signaled danger. Also, she could no longer easily bend or get into tight spaces, or meet the physical demands of the job. Depression set in and sadly a second divorce followed, but it was, as she said, another turning point.
One client, an artist, recognizing the problem, encouraged Elisangela to do squats on the job. An unusual cleaner/client relationship it may have been, but it was effective. When the pandemic came along and every single one of her clients canceled her, she had time on her hands for the first moment in her adult life. She prepared healthier food. She also took on a nutritionist and a personal trainer and began to exercise rigorously in a neighbor’s home gym in the garage.
Within a few short months, Elisangela’s weight dropped from 196 pounds to 155, a loss of 41 pounds — and she is still going strong. (Her goal is to get to 140 pounds.) Asked for tips about her weight loss, she repeats a mantra that may not be original but is certainly true: “Less carbs, less sugar.” But her real sound-bite is simply this: Stay healthy while you’re healthy. Don’t wait until physical problems seem insurmountable.
At any rate, having taken care of her family and her many clients for so long, this model cleaner is now far leaner and all the happier for it.
For more, contact Elisangela Dos Santos at firstname.lastname@example.org.