It was an event I couldn’t refuse. Geraldo Rivera was invited by the graduates of the College of Staten Island’s social work majors to be their commencement speaker. What made it so special was that the school’s campus is the former Willowbrook State school, a place where he helped make history and where my daughter Lara resided in the “baby” buildings.
In 1970 we had brought her there in search of support and help. A sparkling new building and school rooms had been built two years before, offering residential care with an emphasis on intense physical and occupational therapy, sadly unavailable anywhere else in our city.
We were filled with hope for Lara and I asked my neighbors living near me in the Birchwood Towers in Bayside to help me send volunteers to Willowbrook and raise money to help the people living there. So WORC was born, originally the Women’s Organization for Retarded Children.
Erica and Geraldo Rivera with their daughter after the graduation ceremony
During our volunteer years, dramatic stinging budget cuts slashed funds for the state facility. Almost instantly, staff was let go and the thousands of helpless people who lived there (5,400) were victims of those cuts, resulting in some dying from lack of care. My lovely, generous, caring members became marchers and picketers. But it was like knocking on air. No one listened until Geraldo Rivera, a young, passionate reporter with Eyewitness News, was stealthily brought into the locked wards, jumped fences with his cameraman and told the story through the shocking pictures he took. His coverage forced the hand of the parents association who ultimately filed a federal class action lawsuit in which my daughter Lara was a named plaintiff.
Fortunately we won!
Skip ahead over 40 years. Today my organization, re-named Life WORC, is now a $68 million agency providing residential and day programs for people with disabilities and autism. Willowbrook’s 204-acre campus is now the CUNY College of Staten Island.
It all became possible because of the Willowbrook class action lawsuit that mandated the creation of all the group homes and day programs that exist today.
For me it was the first time in decades I was back to those “hallowed grounds.” It was a bittersweet sunny day as I sat on the stage with Geraldo, overlooking the serene campus as he spoke of the history of the place.
He spoke of the Willowbrook he found and the painful personal memory of his exposé there.
In 1971 he had been told by a doctor working at Willowbrook about the awful conditions at the state school but when he opened the locked doors, his world was changed forever by what he saw.
“It was appalling how the world had forgotten about the people living there. The humiliation of being forced to live, many without clothes, left unattended, 60 people with one attendant, smeared with their own feces, making screeching sounds,” he emotionally recalled to the graduates.
Willowbrook was symbolic of the public indifference to people with disabilities. It was the activism of my dear Life WORC members, the parents who had the courage to file a lawsuit, and Geraldo’s persistent, passionate, powerful news reports bringing the shocking living conditions into everyone’s homes. He moved a city and moved a nation. In 1986 he was given the key to Willowbrook by Gov. Hugh Carey that ended forever the inhumane care of people with special needs.
His talk to the graduates shared his feelings when he entered Building Six. He asked them to be the next generation that will make our world a better place, a call to action to remind them of the power they hold in their hands to defeat “socially organized evil.” To act when they see a wrong and never fear speaking out. He got a well-deserved standing ovation.
After the ceremony I accompanied Geraldo and his wonderful, caring, beautiful wife Erica and daughter Soo to see a monument stone with a plaque stating the history of the grounds we were standing on.
Ironically, it was Geraldo’s coverage of the Willowbrook injustice that gave me the desire to be in the news business and make a difference as he has. It took me three more children and a decade to do it but I did it.
Today Geraldo is still committed to the cause of the people with disabilities and hosts each year the Geraldo Rivera Golf Outing, which was held this week and for the last 27 years. With his help we have raised over $1 million from those outings.
He is a unique man who used the power of the press to make a difference for people with developmental disabilities forever. He is my hero!
The dean closed the ceremony with a call to her social work graduates that speaks to all graduates.
A powerful message.
2. Stir up trouble
4. Leap tall buildings
6. Question everything
7. Raise your voice
8. Fight indifference
Memories are made
For 151 years Adelphi Academy of Brooklyn in Bay Ridge is making young people’s dreams come true. It was my privilege to receive their Charlotte Morrill Woman of the Year Award at their annual dinner at Coney Island’s historic Gargiulo’s restaurant and catering hall, across the street from the original Nathan’s. I was there when I was growing up in Brooklyn but hadn’t been back for decades. I was happy to return and meet the Russo family, the owners, who were also being honored that night as The Community Treasure Award recipients. It’s so good to see a successful business giving back to the community they serve. It is with thanks to Chip Cafiero that I met the staff at Adelphi and learned about their history and the new head of the school, Iphigenia Romanos, who has a powerful vision for innovation, while continuing the tradition and unique powerful education Adelphi offers. I look forward to bringing you news about the school and its students.
Honorees Nino Russo, Marc and Sarah Hermann, Victoria Schneps and Vicki Roitman