Victoria’s Secrets: Week of recalling history

Me and my family at the gala. 

It was a beautiful night as I accepted kudos for founding Life’s WORC, along with the brilliant journalist Geraldo Rivera, for our work in helping impact the lives of people with special needs and autism.

It all started with my darling daughter Lara.

It seems like yesterday when, with great joy, after five years of marriage, Murray and I were having our first child. But within hours of her birth, Lara turned blue in the nursery and suffered irreparable brain damage.

Her life changed forever and so did ours.

Lara with her siblings.

The first year of her life was a search for an answer to her seizures. We were in and out of hospitals searching for a cure. Our journey for answers stopped when our pediatric neurologist Dr. Richard Ruben looked us in the eyes and with a tender voice told us that Lara would forever be developmentally a 3-month-old.

Our hope for a cure crashed down on us. There was to be no cure, but being an optimist I hoped there would be a therapy program for her. But in 1969 and into 1970, there were no programs in the community.

And so Murray and I began the next journey from a cure to a place of hope and help.

Family friend Olga Rutner researched places near our home in Bayside. Some people shared places in Denmark and across the nation out west. I couldn’t stand being far from my little darling, so when Olga told us about a place on Staten Island at the Willowbrook State School campus that had just opened an infant rehabilitation center called the “Baby Buildings,” a place of hope, that offered physical and occupational therapy daily, we thought that was the place for Lara.

Tom Suozzi presented Geraldo and I with flags that had flown over the capital!

So with many tears and fear, but also hope, we brought her to Willowbrook.

Within weeks, several dear friends and family members suggested we start a group to help the children like Lara at Willowbrook. So, from my living room sofa, WORC (Women’s Organization for Retarded Children) was born.

Our wonderful women volunteered and raised money for the 5,400 people who lived there, but within the year, severe budget cuts from Gov. Nelson Rockefeller slashed the staff that took care of my Lara, who had to be fed, diapered and bathed. 

Little did I know what was happening behind the dozens of closed wards. But Dr. Wilkins, a caring, but angry, frustrated doctor working on the large, 375-acre campus, had a friend in the media.

Demetra Mattone, Milena Kabbani and Toni Cimino. 

So in the dark of night, he snuck in with his friend Geraldo Rivera. They climbed walls and “crashed” past locked doors with Geraldo’s cameraman to find shocking sights and sounds. 

People were half-naked, rocking on the floor with moaning sounds filling the concrete floors and walls. 

Geraldo’s tremendous, award-winning reporting exposed those conditions. His words still ring in my head: “I can show you the pictures. I can share the sounds. But how do I describe the smells?”

To this day, his Emmy Award-winning coverage still draws tears to my eyes.

Sol, Erica and Geraldo with Bill O’Reilly.

As the crisis at Willowbrook built, Murray believed the only way to help Lara and the thousands of people there was to file a federal class action lawsuit. So we did, and after years of what came to be called the “Willowbrook Wars,” we were victorious in the courts and Willowbrook was finally closed. In its place, small family homes were created with nearby day programs in the community.

Fast forward to today and Life’s WORC (formerly WORC) will be opening its 50th home and at our 50th Anniversary Gala, raised $1 million to build a job training program for people with special needs and autism.

The next step of services is in the plans, but a lot depends on the state budget about to be finalized.

Sadly, even as we accomplished miracles over the years, the “Willowbrook Wars” seem to never end. 

Lynn Koufakis and I with John and Denise Buran

The “Angels” who care for the people we serve are desperately in need of salary increases and funds for services for our clients after years of severe slashes. We must fight for them!

We all wait with hope that we can, as Bill O’Reilly said in his brilliant remarks at our gala, ensure that the pursuit of happiness be assured to the people who Life’s WORC serves.

I know Life’s WORC will continue and I am committed to what has become my life’s work! 

With Geraldo and Bill O’Reilly

My three surviving children, Elizabeth (born two years after Lara), Samantha (born six years after Lara) and Josh (born eight years after Lara) shared their loving feelings, delivered on a video they previously recorded. My heart swelled with pride. 

Their beautiful children joined me on stage as we held hands to toast to the future. Their shining faces and the standing ovation in front of the more than 400 people at the Garden City Hotel’s grand ballroom made me feel Lara up in heaven was looking down on us saying, “Thanks, Mom, and my Life’s WORC friends!”

She lives on forever!

Dr. Harvey Manes with his family.

See more photos from the event on QNS.com.

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