Reading the Newsday obituary about the passing of a beloved member of the Lattingtown community who was born with a developmental disability got me thinking about how far we’ve come in terms of helping people with disabilities, yet at the same time how much more we must do.
Through a series of circumstances, Leslie Robert Smith ended up in the infamous Willowbrook State School on Staten Island. The school was shut down in 1987, more than a decade after a public outcry over its treatment of its disabled residents led by Victoria Schneps-Yunis — who went on to found Life’s WORC, a nonprofit that supports people with intellectual disabilities and autism. The reporting of Geraldo Rivera, who was a reporter at WABC-TV at the time, helped focus national media attention on Willowbrook.
Like Smith, Schneps-Yunis’s daughter, Lara, had been at Willowbrook — although when she arrived, it was considered a top facility for special-needs children. A lack of state funding ultimately doomed the school, but thankfully, Smith ended up in a Melville group home, where he thrived in a less restrictive setting. He lived out his life in more supportive homes over the decades, most recently a Lattingtown group home run by the nonprofit Quality Services for the Autism Community.
Meanwhile, inspired by her experience with her daughter, Schneps-Yunis has made it her life’s work to provide support for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and autism. I was honored recently to attend the dedication of a building at the Life’s WORC facility in Garden City, which was being named after Vicki.
I am proud to have secured funding to support Life’s WORC and other organizations in our area with the same level of dedication. One is AHRC Nassau, which supports 2,200 people with intellectual and other developmental disabilities through a wide array of services. It has a terrific facility, which I recently toured. It’s situated in a serene area of Brookville, in a 100-plus-year-old house with an adjoining working farm. I am so proud to have also secured funding to help make this extraordinary facility a nurturing home for its many residents.
Another facility, Camp Helen Keller, on the LIU campus in Brookville, offers low-vision children an unforgettable summer experience. Run by Helen Keller Services for the Blind, the camp aims to improve children’s self-esteem, self-confidence and socialization skills. It’s the highlight of my summer to visit this remarkable camp and see the joy on the faces of the children, many of whom I recognize from the year before. I am so proud to have secured funding to help operate the camp, which is free of charge for participants.
SCO Family of Services has 84 programs serving 50,000 New Yorkers each year. I toured its Robert J. McMahon Children’s Center, in Sea Cliff, recently and was awed by the staff’s dedication and care. Its residential treatment center provides 24-hour nursing care and social services, while the Tyree Learning Center, a state-certified special-education school, accommodates the unique needs of children and adolescents with developmental disabilities.
I will continue to do everything I can to lend my support to these wonderful organizations, but I am also pleased to know that we have a chief executive in Albany who is a true champion of the disabled community. I was fortunate to join Gov. Kathy Hochul at the Life’s WORC dedication, where I saw for myself the sincerity of her commitment. It’s actually been proven time and again in her actions.
In November, Hochul signed legislation to ensure that at least one member of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority Board is transit-dependent due to a disability.
In October, she hosted a disability-rights employment symposium.
In September, Hochul announced $13 million in grants to nonprofit service providers to offer career-training opportunities for people with developmental disabilities. That same month, she signed legislation that made important updates to the Disabilities Planning Council.
In July 2022, Hochul signed legislation that strengthened the rights of New Yorkers with disabilities, including the elimination of references to “mentally retarded” or “mentally ill,” replaced by the term “people with intellectual or developmental disabilities.”
Thank you to Hochul and my colleagues in the Assembly who share my belief that we must support organizations dedicated to enabling everyone to live the kind of life we are all entitled to.
Charles Lavine represents the 13th Assembly District.