Summer is upon us at last, and as our thoughts turn to beaches, bar-b-q’s, picnics, and vacations, we can’t help but feel a little bit lighter. Maybe it’s a remnant of our school days when it seemed that we had an endless summer of possibilities ahead of us, or maybe the longer days and milder weather make our challenges seem just a little bit less daunting. Whatever the reason, I’ll happily take it!
This summer we have a good cause for celebration. GEC is celebrating our 65th Anniversary! It was in 1958 when the Guild for Exceptional Children (GEC) was founded and incorporated by a group of parents who wanted to build a better life for people living with intellectual/developmental disabilities (I/DD) than the institutional care that was available at the time. Springing from an idea, GEC blossomed to become a leader on the advocacy front, fighting for the rights of people with I/DD and growing our services to serve hundreds of adults in our residences and day programs, and hundreds of children in our school.
This year also constitutes a more notorious anniversary; the 50th anniversary of the expose that ultimately led to the closing of the Willowbrook State School and paved the way to more humane, inclusive, individualized care. I am choosing to mention this here because it always surprises me when I am speaking to younger people and they seem unaware of America’s institutional history. This is not ancient history. Willowbrook continued into the 1970s! It is important that we talk about it, lest we forget and allow some of the gains we’ve made in the last 50 years to get lost. Geraldo Rivera, who did the exposé described the horrific conditions at Willowbrook as a “kennel for humanity disguised as a school”. He went on to say that “There was one attendant for perhaps 50 severely and profoundly (disabled) children. Children lying on the floor naked and smeared with their own feces...” The images from that exposé are difficult to dismiss, and many families, who were unaware of what conditions were actually like, had no choice. If they couldn’t care for their disabled loved one at home, they had to use the institution. GEC and other organizations like us, provided new options. We were the pioneers for qualitative care and the creation of more loving and supportive environments that enable the people we serve to grow and to live their best lives.
If you watch or listen to the news lately, it seems that we are bombarded with bad news. It can become depressing. I suggest turning off the news once in a while, or at least substituting it with some good heart-warming news. I would like to share with you a few personal stories about GEC:
I first met John when I started working at GEC as a Direct Support Professional in 1986. GEC rescued him from Willowbrook in 1970 and gave him a home in the Conklin Residence, the first privately run community residence for adults with I/DD in Brooklyn. After some years, it became evident that John was very independent; so much so that he didn’t really require 24-hour supervision. He was part of a GEC pilot program for supportive apartments. Together, John and a roommate lived in a 2-bedroom apartment supported by GEC staff for several hours each day. Over the years, John had many jobs; from working in the GEC Sheltered Workshop, to volunteering at Lutheran Medical Center, to working at the Mill Basin Marina, John enjoyed his independence and his freedom to live his life on his own terms. He is now enjoying his best, happiest life in his apartment under the guidance of Apartment Supervisor Anthony Martinez, with roommates Eddie and Yogi (his cat). A big fan of TV & movie westerns and country music, John has come a long way since Willowbrook, and is just one of many GEC success stories.
Joseph is a young man who has been part of GEC’s Day Habilitation Without Walls program for about 15 years and who has been working with senior citizens and serving them their lunch at Shore Hill Senior Assisted Living since 2009. He has grown to love this job and the feeling of independence and purpose that he gets from it. His favorite part of working is the interaction that he has with the seniors. Joseph’s supervisors Natalie & Myra refer to him as a team player who carries out all tasks in an effective and efficient manner. They describe him as an asset to the worksite and they don’t know what they would do without his daily help. Way to go Joseph! Keep up the good work!
GEC runs a special education preschool for children aged 3-5. Because Brooklyn is a melting pot, services at our school are offered in English, Mandarin, and Spanish. Ben came to GEC’s preschool in September of 2021. Born prematurely, he faced a number of challenges. He had no language, was extremely anxious and sensitive to environmental stimuli, and spent much of his time crying. He was provided with very close supervision by licensed, certified special education teachers, structured classroom activities, and modelling. He also received Speech, Occupational, and Physical Therapy in accordance with his Individualized Educational Plan. Today his cognition has improved. He can speak in short sentences and phrases. His socialization has improved dramatically; he is no longer anxious or fearful and is in fact, a classroom leader, often helping children newer to the program to acclimate. Ben is graduating to a more independent integrated classroom in the fall, where he will learn alongside some typically developing children, and he is on the road toward greater independence. The GEC helped to give Ben a great start in life!
Paul is a young man who lived a very happy life growing up in Rockaway in the care of his parents. He became involved with GEC’s Fischetti Center Adult Day Habilitation program about 12 years ago. This past January, Paul’s mother passed away from complications due to COVID. His father passed away years earlier. The passing of his mother was an unexpected tragedy that hit Paul deeply. To add to his distress, Paul is not independent enough to live on his own. Immediately his aunts and sister, as well as a group of parents who are involved with GEC banded together to assist Paul. You’ve heard the expression “It takes a village”. What a beautiful village Paul had! There was not a day when he wasn’t shown love and support. GEC also began the task of cutting through the red tape that can delay placement for years to get Paul on the emergency list for residential placement. Last month, he was finally approved for GEC’s Santangelo Residence. The Residence Manager Tina and Asst. Manager Sandy, along with the dedicated staff at Santangelo made it their mission to help Paul feel welcome, supported, and loved in his new home. Paul is now adjusting to residential living and has made many new friends at Santangelo Residence.
As usual, as much as I enjoy sharing some of our success stories with you all, I am also once again asking for your help. GEC is facing a number of challenges in the year ahead. Chief among them is the staffing shortage that GEC and other providers like us are facing. When I started at GEC, there was a kind of social movement going on. It seemed that many from my generation wanted to be “part of the solution”. Also, due in part to the disgrace of Willowbrook, the government was willing to fund these progressive movements. Unfortunately, that funding that we are so dependent on has not kept pace with inflation. We need to draw more people to this important and rewarding work and we need to convince the government that this essential workforce needs to earn a livable wage. Please share this letter and encourage people you know to visit our website at www.gecbklyn.org to inquire about applying to work with GEC or supporting our efforts.
We have also been running a therapeutic social recreation program for people with I/DD on evenings and weekends for the past 40 years. This program provides tremendous opportunities for the adults we serve to interact with the community at large, and to take advantage of the many cultural offerings that Brooklyn and NYC have to offer. We recently learned that the funding (about $120,000 per year) for this important program has been discontinued. GEC wants to keep this program going. In an effort to do so we are committing 100% of funds raised from this appeal to continue our social/recreation program in some fashion.
AS GEC celebrates 65 years of “Building Better Lives”, please consider helping us in this effort. If you can, I’d like you to think about making a recurring contribution (weekly, monthly, annually), whatever you are comfortable with. Know that every contribution will help us to continue our good work. We also have opportunities for “honorariums” where people can be honored or remembered permanently on our “Tree of Life”. The horrors of Willowbrook are a stark reminder of how far we’ve come, and where we might be headed if we turn our heads and refuse to acknowledge the importance of this mission. It is important that we remember where we’ve been, and are steadfast in our commitment to do the right thing going forward.
Finally, I want to take this opportunity to thank you for the interest and support you’ve shown to GEC (and for having the patience to read through my letter!). I have been working in this field (and in fact for GEC) for the past 37 years, and it is gratifying to find inspiration nearly everywhere I look. With dedicated staff and supportive families, I truly believe that there is nothing we cannot accomplish!
I hope that you and your families have a safe and happy summer filled with endless possibilities!
Joseph L. Riley