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Victoria Schneps with Geraldo Rivera
Victoria Schneps with Geraldo Rivera

Victoria’s Secrets is a weekly column by the founder and the publisher of QNS.com, Victoria Schneps.

 

Geraldo Rivera and I met in 1971 at the Willowbrook State School on Staten Island. I was organizing protesters, marching and picketing to demand funds be restored for the care of the 5,400 people living there. One of them was my daughter Lara.

Through winning lawsuits, care was changed forever for people with disabilities and Geraldo, after his award-winning coverage, has been a mainstay of caring and action. Life’s WORC organizes a golf tournament to raise necessary dollars for the programs, and for 29 years Geraldo has lent his name and friendship and presence to the cause.

This year my daughter Samantha, now an MSW social worker, has added an ingredient to the fundraiser — a luncheon and “card” party. I’m so proud of her new involvement.

I’m sharing the moving, powerful letter she sent to her friends asking for their support. It got an overwhelming response and it tells the journey we have traveled these past four decades:

As some of you may know, my sister Lara was born in 1968 and suffered brain damage at birth. She was later diagnosed as having Profound Mental Retardation and Cerebral Palsy. As first-time parents, my mom and dad later learned that Lara would never walk, talk, sit up or be able to feed herself. She would always need 24-hour, full-time assistance.

At that time, after an intensive search, my parents found an “Infant Rehabilitation Center” inside of the Willowbrook State School. As that was the only existing program for Lara, my parents admitted her into Willowbrook.

Shortly after Lara’s admission in 1971, my mom founded Life’s WORC along with some of her friends from her community and a dose of my father’s advice, guidance and legal ability. They sent busloads of volunteers made up of her friends and community members and raised money to buy needed supplies. However, a year later, the state budget was slashed and individuals living there were dramatically affected. There was no therapy, no services, and certainly no potential for Lara to thrive and improve. Staff was fired, care became neglectful, and several people died.

Life’s WORC members marched and picketed at Willowbrook and my parents became the spokespeople for all who lived there. My parents were committed to changing the way services for children and adults with developmental disabilities were provided.

My father, a tenacious attorney, joined with other parents and lawyers and led the filing of a groundbreaking class action lawsuit against the federal government. Due to my parents’ advocacy and litigation, Willowbrook was closed and the laws were changed so that individuals with developmental disabilities live just like anyone else in small community residences and receive therapies and services to help them live to their maximum potential.

Geraldo Rivera was a young reporter at the time and he led a daily TV news campaign against the existence of Willowbrook. Geraldo worked with my parents to expose the horrific conditions at Willowbrook. He has stayed involved throughout the years and is honored every year by Life’s WORC for his accomplishments in the field.

The way this population was served was forever changed but much ongoing advocacy and support is needed to make sure services never return to anywhere near horror of that time.

Sadly, my sister Lara passed away in 1986 when I was in fourth grade. This experience has had a huge impact on shaping the person I am today. My family has stayed very involved through the years and this year I, too, have decided to join in.

Life’s WORC has grown exponentially, serving over 2,000 people to provide services including group homes and day programs and just established the FAMILY CENTER for AUTISM in Garden City, NY.
You can join us for lunch or dinner, for a donation of $100 per person. Please call 516-741-9000. The Golf is sold out.

 

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