My heroes who make a difference in people’s lives every day gathered in Garden City, ironically to pay tribute to me. I was joined by Mayor Eric Adams, Geraldo Rivera, Nassau and Suffolk County Executives Bruce Blakeman and Steve Bellone, Assemblymembers Rebecca Seawright and Jodi Giglio, both on the disabilities committee, along with many friends and family. Geraldo had traveled from his home in Cincinnati to be with me on the very wondrous Wednesday.
It was Geraldo who was my inspiration to go into the news business because of his powerful and moving expose 50 years ago, which changed forever thousands of people’s lives who were living at the infamous Willowbrook State School, where my daughter Lara was a resident, along with 5,400 other people.
Life’s WORC was born with a group of my women friends who wanted to help me to help Lara and the others who lived at Willowbrook. We gathered in my living room and formed a group to volunteer at Willowbrook and raise money for the people who were living there.
Every weekend, I visited Lara and my members volunteered and soon bonded with the people they met there. We were a small army of volunteers each week making a difference and touching the lives of each person we visited.
But before the first year was out, Governor Rockefeller’s administration slashed the budget for the “school” and immediately, the direct care workers were fired! They were the loving, caring hands who fed my daughter, changed her diapers, gave her daily baths and took her to her therapy classes.
My husband and I raised our voices in protest.
My members and I took to the streets of the 375-acre Willowbrook grounds on Staten Island and marched, picketed and protested, sadly to no avail. I felt we were knocking on air and no one heard us.
But then, Geraldo Rivera, a young reporter from Eyewitness News, snuck into the back wards with the help of a doctor working at Willowbrook. Geraldo’s dramatic reporting of the snake pit-like conditions shocked the people who saw it!
Now, people started to listen!
At the same time, my late ex-husband Murray Schneps, an attorney, believed restoring the cuts was not the answer, but closing down Willowbrook was!
We filed a federal class action lawsuit with Lara and other Willowbrook residents named as plaintiffs for the purpose of closing down Willowbrook and opening humane and personal group homes for five to six people in each home.
We won the lawsuit!
My loving, caring board members of what is now known as Life’s WORC changed our mission from being volunteers at Willowbrook to providers of group homes. We hired an executive director and our new mission began!
Thanks to Geraldo’s fundraising concert with John Lennon, Yoko Ono, John Denver and Roberta Flack, we got funds that enabled us to purchase a home in Little Neck, Queens, to be used as the first home for children from Willowbrook to begin their new lives.
Community group homes were going to be a safe haven for my Lara and others like her.
The house we wanted to acquire was owned by an 82-year-old man and his wife who had built the brick beauty that was the perfect site for our future group home.
But the neighbors were furious and sued us. People were so angry that I got death threats and had to remove my Schneps license plates from my car!
It was a terrifying time, but fortunately we won the lawsuit that resulted in a new law allowing group homes to be opened in residential neighborhoods. Our service to the people coming from the infamous Willowbrook State School had begun!
Appropriately, that home was named in honor of Geraldo and his Emmy Award-winning expose of Willowbrook.
So it was an especially sweet moment when the board of Life’s WORC recognized my founding the group and put my name on its headquarters in Garden City on Long Island. I’m so grateful for Lynne Koufakis and the board for making this extraordinary honor possible.
It was a privilege to have so many powerful and special guests join me and my family to celebrate, including powerful New York City Mayor Eric Adams — what a thrill to have him there!
The special guests helped me and my family — including my wonderful children and grandchildren — cut the ribbon on Life’s WORC three-story headquarters site contiguous to our Family Center for Autism. I was grateful, shocked and delighted to see friends come from as far as Easthampton! What an afternoon!
My little Lara may have been a 3-month-old developmentally, but her power of being Lara has helped hundreds of thousands of people to live lives of dignity.
And I’m proud to say Life’s WORC has evolved in the over 50 years since we founded it to offer more than 2,000 people services they need to make their lives ones of dignity and hope.
Lara quietly passed away in her sleep after a brief illness when she was 17, but her life was a thunderbolt for people with special needs. She lives on.
What a wonderful Wednesday it was!