Geraldo celebrates 25 years of golf benefit


| vschneps@queenscourier.com |

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Me and Geraldo with honoree Kevin Arnstein and Peter Smergut, executive director of Life’s WORC.

It was a sparkling sun-filled day at Plandome Country Club — a bonus, since we were celebrating 25 years of raising much-needed dollars through the Geraldo Rivera Golf Open. And he was there, as he has been at every one of the outings!

But this year was a little different. Geraldo recently added a radio show on WABC from ten to noon and that day he was broadcasting live from the country club. I must admit I was a little shocked when I saw the “broadcast studio.” It was two laptops sitting on top of the club’s bar; Geraldo wore headphones and held a mike for the few live interviews and cut into the station for commercial breaks, interviews and the news.

I kidded Geraldo after our hugs and kisses that I was the longest-running woman in his life, since we’ve known each other for 40 years. And he laughed that it was true — only his mother has more longevity with him.

We go back to the early 1970s when he was a cub reporter for Eyewitness News and I was a young mother when my daughter Lara was a resident at Willowbrook, an institution for people with disabilities on Staten Island.

Lara had turned blue in the nursery within a few hours of her birth and suffered brain damage that left her developmentally a three month old her whole life. We had brought her to Willowbrook because in the early 1970s they had built a million-dollar infant rehabilitation center after a scandal there was uncovered by Robert Kennedy in 1968. How ironic that only a few years later budget cuts created another crisis.

When Lara began her journey at Willowbrook friends of mine in Bayside asked how they could help. They were so grateful to have had healthy children. And so we began the Women’s Organization for Retarded Children (WORC).

We raised money to buy “things” for Lara’s “friends” and sent bus-loads of volunteers each weekend, but sadly within a year there were massive cuts in the state budget that immediately affected staffing.

My three-year-old daughter needed to be fed, diapered and carried, and there were 30 other children like Lara that now were cared for by a massively reduced staff. In other buildings, people were choking to death because of staffing cuts.

My lovely ladies of WORC became marchers and picketers. But sadly no one paid attention until Geraldo Rivera came with his cameras. His passionate, powerful, persistent coverage moved a nation and resulted in forcing the hand of the parents’ association, which finally agreed to file a federal class-action lawsuit.

The winning of the case in federal court, resulting in the Willowbrook Consent Decree, changed forever the funding of services for people with disabilities. Every person leaving Willowbrook — and there were 5,400 people living there — had to be placed in a group home and receive a training/education program. This was the birth of community-based programs and ultimately the closing of inhumane institutions.

Happily today WORC, renamed Life’s WORC, serves 1,200 individuals and their families and maintains 36 homes and 14 day programs in Queens, Nassau and Suffolk Counties.

The annual golf outing bearing Geraldo’s name has raised over $1 million. This year board member Kevin Arnstein, a managing director of insurance company Cook, Hall & Hyde, was honored and under his guidance we had the most successful outing ever.

So I thank the tireless, passionate Geraldo, who has dedicated himself to us these many years. He’s a man who has made a difference.