“To the world you may be just one person, but to one person you may be the world.” - Dr Seuss
Dear Friends of the Guild for Exceptional Children (GEC),
I would like to begin by wishing you all a joyous Holiday Season. I hope that you and your loved ones are happy, healthy, and connected in all of the most meaningful ways. I also want to say thank you for being there for GEC, through good times and bad, for having our back, and for being our friend. Even the fact that you have opened this letter and read this far means that you have an active interest in the work we do and the people we serve, and in your heart, you want to help if you can.
Since I opened this note with a quote about friendship, I would like to talk with you about one of the many friendships that developed during my time here at GEC. When I was a Direct Support Professional (DSP) at Martini Residence back in the 1980’s (yes…way back in the 1900’s!) I met a young man who lived there. Born with Down Syndrome, Vinny had limitations associated with his disability. Among them was the fact that Vinny was non-verbal. The amazing thing, though, is that Vinny was one of the best communicators I have ever known. Through a combination of sounds and gestures, Vin never had a problem getting his point across. Much of the time he was communicating something he wanted (a snack or a buck perhaps) or relaying gossip about a rival housemate to try and get them in trouble.
But sometimes the message behind his soft sounds and bear hugs was undeniably “I love you!” And what a capacity for love Vinny had. I was teaching high school during my early days at GEC and would often have to go straight to school after my overnight shift. Vinny, meticulous about his own appearance, would find my shirt and tie for school the night before and make sure that it was neatly pressed so that I would look professional (for a small fee of course). Vinny was an entrepreneur and he was very clever. He was also the darling of Brooklyn’s police force. Every police officer in south Brooklyn knew and loved Vinny.
After a few years at Martini, it was determined that Vinny was too independent for an ICF (Intermediate Care Facility) and he was moved to a new GEC home, the Quinones Residence. I followed as a DSP there. By this time, we had become fast friends. He visited my house and family; we ate out together and I joined him on some vacations. I even took him fishing on a boat out of Sheepshead Bay, something he had dreamed of for years. Unfortunately, we did not anticipate seasickness, so after that fateful trip, we limited fishing to dock and shoreline opportunities. One of my favorite memories of Vinny is when he would take his guitar and go to 86th street to sing and play in the hope of raising some money. Now, you should know that Vinny could neither sing nor play the guitar, but he always came home with a guitar case full of money.
Some time ago, Vinny passed away following a long battle with Dementia. He passed peacefully, in the arms of his loving family as well as his Quinones Residence family. It was difficult to watch him go this way, knowing how clever and sociable he had been. I will always remember him as the gregarious, fun, happy, loving person he was. And he was truly my friend, and one of the many reasons I decided to continue my work with GEC.
There is a spirit that haunts the halls of our Mastronardi Adult Day Habilitation Program. Actually, there is a whole lot of spirit. It comes in many forms but there is one voice that is so infectious with enthusiasm, so imbued with energy, and so unabashedly positive, that it cannot be ignored. I am speaking of course, of my good friend Ajuwon. A program participant at Mastronardi, Ajuwon can often be heard encouraging his friends to do better or cheering up someone who is sad. His beautiful voice can be heard singing with the music program or joining in with Christmas carols at holiday civic events, and he has often been tapped to speak for GEC in promotional videos online. Small wonder, as his broad smile and marvelous positive energy light up any room he is in.
As I witness Ajuwon’s warmth and gentle good nature I realize that something has happened; something that happens often when working with these beautiful people: the teacher has become the student once again! What do I have to complain about? This man, despite whatever adversity he may have faced, may be the most positive person I know. He makes me feel hopeful! He makes me feel blessed! How can I not? Ajuwon’s has two favorite pieces of advice for his peers and anyone else who is listening (including this Executive Director).
The first is to “just be yourself”! Sound advice indeed. How many of us twist ourselves into contortions trying to conform to society’s norms or meet someone else’s expectations, even if they go against our own beliefs? His second is just as wise: “NEVER. GIVE. UP”! That could be GEC’s motto.
We recently celebrated our 65th Anniversary of building better lives for people with intellectual/developmental disabilities (I/DD), and despite many obstacles to overcome, we never gave up! We’re still here!
In 2022 we launched a “Rebuild the Guild” campaign, and in 2024 we will realize that goal. Our day programs and our school are returning to capacity, and GEC is embarking on some new and exciting projects to improve our infrastructure, offer broader services, and emphasize safety. Ground has been broken on the development of a new Day Habilitation Program on Avenue N in Mill Basin. The space will be open, airy, and modern and will accommodate some 40 individuals with I/DD who live in or near that area of Brooklyn. We expect it to become a popular haven where people can learn and grow. It is the first time in many years that GEC has developed a new space. We are taking out a loan for this construction because it is so important to serve this part of Brooklyn and are raising whatever funds we can to supplement. Construction is ahead of schedule and we expect to open the program in late winter/early spring.
We have also broken ground on a huge residential initiative. This project consists of an upgrade to four (4) of our residences that includes the installation of state-of-the-art full interior sprinkler systems. These systems are especially important, as some of the folks in our residences age and develop mobility issues. They are designed to keep people safe in the event of a fire and provide them with extra evacuation time. Thankfully, a grant from the Dormitory Authority of NYS is providing most of the funding for this project, but we expect those funds to fall short and are hoping to raise the difference through our fundraising efforts (and this appeal). In fact, every dollar raised in this year’s Appeal will go to GEC’s Building Fund, to help make these projects a reality.
There is also another way you can support your friends here at GEC. We are finding ourselves in the worst workforce crisis I have ever seen in my 37 years working here. If the stories you see in the letters I’ve sent strike a chord in you, or if you know someone who would like to try their hand at some really rewarding work, consider applying for a job here with us. I can tell you (from experience) that we are very flexible and it is a very friendly organization to work with. My original part time gig as a DSP in 1986 was supposed to be temporary. I just couldn’t walk away!
We have all heard in the news from Mayor Adams and Governor Hochul that State and local governments will have to dramatically cut funding in the year ahead. I suspect we will soon be hearing about something similar on the federal level as well. Despite these shortfalls in funding and staffing, I have no doubt that GEC will persevere. We will do so because we have friends like you. Walter Winchell famously said that “A real friend is someone who walks in when the rest of the world walks out”; or as another wise wordsmith would put it, we just have to remember to be ourselves and...“NEVER. GIVE. UP”!
I wish you all the happiest of Holidays!
Yours in Friendship,
Joe Riley GEC
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