Feature stories

How far we've come

From halls of horror to havens of hope for special needs children

Newsman Geraldo Rivera (standing, center) and former Willowbrook State School re Miller Photography

Newsman Geraldo Rivera (standing, center) and former Willowbrook State School resident Bernard Carabello are flanked by Hungerford School paraprofessionals (from left) Janine Vecchio, Aideen Taylor and Jean Kelly.

Those with disabilities today have “a world of opportunity ahead of them,” said Dr. Mary McInerney, the principal of the Richard H. Hungerford School on Staten Island, speaking of people like Marianna Pastena, a graduate of the District 75 school and now a paraprofessional there.

But it was not always so.

Willowbrook State School on Staten Island gained infamy in the 1960s and early 1970s when it was exposed as an inhumane, severely overcrowded, filthy warehouse for people with challenges. Pastena acknowledges that she feels “blessed when I think of what the people who lived at the Willowbrook State School had to endure.”

Paraprofessional Bill Boyle helps Joseph work with a communication device while Miller PhotographyParaprofessional Bill Boyle helps Joseph work with a communication device while Chapter Leader Al Vota looks on. Paraprofessional Jimmy Caravello helps Ralph learn to brush his teeth.Miller PhotographyParaprofessional Jimmy Caravello helps Ralph learn to brush his teeth.

The Hungerford faculty celebrated their school’s 50th anniversary on April 1 by remembering that shameful history and reflecting on the transformation since their school’s founding in the treatment and education of people with special needs. The featured speaker was Geraldo Rivera, who as a young local TV reporter in 1972 helped uncover the atrocities. His exposé of Willowbrook was the catalyst that helped fast track improvements to an education system that today helps special needs individuals reach their potential and, in many cases, gain their independence.

“While Geraldo was not directly linked to our school’s founding, populations we serve today may never have had the opportunity to go to school or even be part of the community had it not been for his exposé,” Chapter Leader Al Vota said.

Hungerford School nurse Elena Abolmasova helps Brianna perform a task.Miller PhotographyHungerford School nurse Elena Abolmasova helps Brianna perform a task. Paraprofessional Robert Smith (left), whose father taught at Hungerford when it Miller PhotographyParaprofessional Robert Smith (left), whose father taught at Hungerford when it opened in 1967, and Hungerford graduate Willie Wishington, who is now employed to maintain the school’s website.

Educator Richard H. Hungerford was recruited in 1960 to bring occupational education to the city’s five boroughs. The first site, in Manhattan, opened in 1961; the Staten Island site was the last to open, in 1967. And when Willowbrook closed in 1987, some of its residents went to Hungerford, which today serves more than 450 students.

The almost 200 people who attended the conference heard Rivera, former Willowbrook residents and Hungerford students, as well as special needs experts, educators and parents speak about the horrors of the past and insist they never be forgotten.

Paraprofessional Alexis Mulea observes Valone hard at work.Miller PhotographyParaprofessional Alexis Mulea observes Valone hard at work. Marianna Pastena (right), a paraprofessional who is a Hungerford graduate, and pMiller PhotographyMarianna Pastena (right), a paraprofessional who is a Hungerford graduate, and para Narcisa Pannone get a smile from Elefterios.

“The reason I like to talk about Willowbrook,” said Bernard Carabello, who lived there between the ages of 3 and 21 and who now works as an advocate for the disabled, “is to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself.”

Former Willowbrook worker Diane Buglioli recounted that she was 19 with no experience working with special needs individuals but excited nonetheless on her first day — until she arrived at the building where she was assigned.

She used the heavy, steel key she was given to open three massive steel doors in a dark, cold building. Behind the third door were 40 toddlers who were to be under her care.

“Some were smiling,” she recalled. “Some asked me my name. Others were silent. Some walked toward me, some were in wooden carts and others were sitting on the floor. I can still feel that twinge in my stomach, thinking to myself: Why do these children need to be locked behind these doors?”

Willowbrook State School was established with good intentions in the 1930s: to teach and care for the disabled. But time, budget cuts and neglect produced inhumane conditions. Some residents were starved, others were physically and even sexually abused. Many were put in cages, and some were subjected to cruel medical experiments.

“Parents were unaware of the conditions,” noted UFT District 75 Representative Analia Gerard, who attended the conference. “They weren’t permitted to visit the areas where their children were actually kept so they didn’t know how bad it was.”

The Staten Island Advance reported on it. Sen. Robert Kennedy visited and demanded improvements. But nothing changed until Rivera and a cameraman sneaked in and Channel 7 aired his report, which began: “Tonight, as a public service, we are going to make you sick.”

National outrage was quick to follow, leading eventually to the closing of Willowbrook, as well as to protections and legislation including, ultimately, the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.

Vota said that while we are often shocked by horrors in other nations, Rivera’s work forced the United States to “look at what we were allowing to happen to babies, children and adults who were completely defenseless right here in New York City. America was embarrassed and had to change how we treat children requiring a special education,” he said.

Although everyone agreed there is more work to do, the accomplishments at occupational training centers like Hungerford cannot be denied.

Just ask Marianna Pastena.

“I am now a very independent person,” she said. “I have my own apartment, I work and I volunteer. I take Access-A-Ride wherever I go. I do not have to depend on anyone to take me to or pick me up from places.”

Pastena says she highly recommends the Hungerford School to parents. “They will work with your child to get the child a job that would fit his or her abilities,” she said.

Just as Hungerford did for Pastena, and just as she is doing to help others like herself.

A video of the conference is on the school’s website. Rivera’s website carries the history of the investigation.

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