By Carlotta Mohamed
Richard Pruss, president and CEO of Samaritan Village from 1974-2008, who was known as a pioneer in the field of substance abuse treatment, died July 14 at the age of 75.
Under the leadership of Pruss, Samaritan Village grew from a single outpatient clinic in donated office space on the second floor of an umbrella handle factory in Richmond Hill to a 12-bed residential therapeutic community in a former resort on 100-plus acres in upstate New York.
It has became one of the largest non-profit providers of community-based substance use treatment centers in New York state, and the first to offer primary health care services alongside treatment to address Hepatitis C, HIV/AIDS, diabetes, hypertension, and other chronic diseases facing clients, according to Samaritan Village.
Pruss’s wife of 18 years, Kathleen Riddle, 66, co-founder of the Queens-based treatment agency Outreach, described her husband as a “warm, sweet, wonderful individual” who cared about people and wanted to make a difference.
“He left behind a tremendous legacy of countless lives that have been changed as a result of the work he did,” said Riddle, who retired in June to spend more time with her husband. He died in Larchmont, N.Y., and is survvived by two daughters in addition to his wife.
According to Riddle, Pruss became involved in helping individuals with substance abuse at the age of 22.
In 1965, Pruss worked with Father Damian Pitcaithly, a local Episcopalian priest to aid troubled young men and women at the then Samaritan Halfway Society in Corona. By 1974, he began working with others in the field of substance abuse, and opened one of the nation’s first therapeutic communities, which would become Samaritan Village. He was appointed president and CEO.
By 1975, Pruss’s agency was established as a trailblazer in substance abuse treatment when it launched the country’s first methadone-to-abstinence residential treatment program in Queens. Samaritan Village began acquiring facilities in Ellenville, Manhattan and the Bronx for residential treatment and built relationships with New York state and municipal departments of the City of New York, according to Samaritan Village. There are three facilities in Queens today.
Together, Riddle and Pruss advocated for funding for treatment in Albany and Washington. Throughout his career, Pruss advocated on behalf of addicted individuals, educating legislators and policymakers about the plight of individuals struggling with substance abuse.
“Today there isn’t a person who doesn’t know someone that has a problem with addiction, especially now with the opioid epidemic,” said Riddle. “It’s so widespread and so many lives are being lost more than ever before from any tragedy, when you think about it. It’s probably the most crucial issue we’re facing as a nation and state.”
According to Riddle, Pruss was involved in setting up residential and outpatient programs, and counseling programs at his agency.
“It was a broad range of services that he expanded into a very small agency, that he developed into what it is today probably the most known largest quality treatment program today in New York state,” said Riddle.
In 2008, Pruss stepped down as president and CEO of Samaritan Village and served as board president of Samaritan from 2014-2017. He wanted to remain involved in the future growth and program development of the organization, according to Riddle.
Aside from his dedicated work at Samaritan Village, Pruss was also a founding member and past president of the national Therapeutic Communities of America (now called Treatment Communities of America) and the New York Therapeutic Communities Association. He also helped found the New York State Association of Substance Abuse Providers and served as president from 1988-1992.
He was chairman of the board of Damian Family Care Centers, Inc., a primary medical health center and dental care services provider in New York state, as well as former member of the HELP/PSI Board. In 2007, Pruss was the recipient of the Governor’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
Mitchell Netburn, president and CEO of Samaritan Daytop Village, said Pruss was a true pioneer in the treatment of substance abuse.
“He understood the critical need for both personal and professional growth — introducing services that encouraged clients to pursue education and career training while in treatment,” said Netburn. “Richard’s dedication, passion and commitment to helping those in need were unparalleled throughout his career. We are proud to carry on his legacy.”
In addition to his wife, Pruss is survived by daughters Deena Mauro and Jenny Pruss, a brother Sheldon Pruss and his wife Christine, son-in law Thomas Mauro, granddaughters Montana Mauro, Paige Mauro, and Sydney Hain, a grandson Dalton Hain, eight nephews and six nieces.
Contributions may be made to the Samaritan Daytop Foundation, or the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America.
Reach reporter Carlotta Mohamed by e-mail at cmoha