Diane Buglioli was a bit jolted on her first day of work when she was handed an iron skeleton key that led her through two steel doors and down a hallway of foreboding smells and sounds. More than 40 years later, the founder of A Very Special Place recalled her time at the Willowbrook State School at a lecture at the College of Staten Island (CSI).
“It was a surreal image that stays with me every day as I advocate for people with disabilities to ensure that something like this is never repeated,” said Buglioli, the keynote speaker at the “Willowbrook Memorial Lecture: The Willowbrook Mile Experience.”
The Willowbrook Mile project is a collaboration among the Staten Island Developmental Disabilities Council, the primary advocacy consortium for families and service providers for people with developmental disabilities on Staten Island; the College of Staten Island; the Institute for Basic Research in Developmental Disabilities; and the Elizabeth Connelly Resource Center/Office for People with Developmental Disabilities.
“This project brings awareness to the events of the past, and more importantly, it gives hope for the future. We have come a long way since the days of the former School, and it is inspiring that we can work together to support the efforts of awareness and advocacy that this project continues to strive towards,” commented CSI President William J. Fritz, PhD.
The afternoon ceremony was highlighted by the honoring of David Goode, PhD, retiring CSI Professor of 28 years and expert in the field of individuals with disabilities. Dr. Goode is the author of A World without Words and co-author of A History and Sociology of Willowbrook State School, which he wrote with Darryl Hill, Jean Reiss, and William Bronson, PhD, in 2013.
“I am overwhelmed because there are so many people to thank. Dr. Fritz and former Provost Fred Naider created a new climate here, which allowed us to truly recognize the history of the Willowbrook State School,” noted Goode, who also thanked former Willowbrook residents as well as CSI students, faculty, and staff.
The packed forum took place in the new Lorraine and Gordon Di Paolo Board Room, a “fitting place for this forum of intellectual discourse on this ‘legacy of place,’ which we are all now the guardians of,” noted Ken Iwama, JD, Vice President for Economic Development, Continuing Studies, and Government Relations, and Chief of Staff, Office of the President.
Barbra Teater, PhD, provided opening remarks, and Nan Sussman, PhD, Dean of the Division of Humanities and Social Sciences, introduced Dr. Goode, stating that, “Presenting Dr. Goode with this award upon his retirement is truly a pleasure for me. His efforts in coordinating this lecture series and in researching, archiving, and advocating in this field have fueled the Willowbrook Mile collaborative… As Dr. Goode stresses the importance of historical context, let us look at his many years of important work at CUNY.”
Dr. Sussman outlined Dr. Goode’s post-graduate years, beginning with his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees received from Queens College. Receiving a PhD from UCLA in 1980, Dr. Goode focused on ethnomethodology and his research focused, in particular, on children who were deaf and blind in the Rubella epidemic. This led him to write his award winning book, A World without Words.
“Our College and the Staten Island community are indebted to Dr. Goode for his more than 40 years of community service, groundbreaking scholarship, and commitment to advocacy for persons with disabilities. We hope he will return to speak to our future generations,” Dr. Sussman said.
Dr. Goode reflected on a challenging past, a “great” present, and a promising future. “There were certainly some hard times, but now things are really just great, and it is my hope that this good work continues,” said Dr. Goode,
Focusing on the history of the State School, and in particular, the stations of the Willowbrook Mile, Buglioli presented historical facts and photos, and more movingly, described her own experiences as a staff member at the former School.
“One day, a little girl was limping, and I thought she had some swelling or something wrong with her foot. When I took off her shoe and sock, there was a crumpled up ball of paper. It was a birthday card from her mother,” Buglioli retold, remembering a crammed, impersonal place where individuals could not even store belongings safely and had to revert to saving mementos on their person.
With pride and hope in all of the important work she has done over more than four decades, Buglioli has but one regret.
“When the School closed and the residents went to live in the community, we lost contact with many of them. I have their baby pictures; I have pieces of their past that I can never give them,” said Buglioli, who co-founded A Very Special Place in 1974. The organization opened its first publicly funded services in 1980.
Dr. Goode’s parting words were meant for his students, and are, perhaps, sage advice for all: “There are incredible possibilities here… keep peace in your heart, don’t always think about yourself, and try to be compassionate.”
The event concluded with a lunch reception provided by the Lifestyles Caffe and a walking tour of the Willowbrook Mile (actually a 2.2 mile stretch) led by Nora Santiago, Urban Policy Analyst at CSI. In addition, students from the Melissa Riggio program assisted with the event.
The collaboration for the Mile includes the Staten Island Developmental Disabilities Council, the College, and the Office for People with Developmental Disabilities, of which the Institute of Basic Research and the Elizabeth Connelly Resource Center are divisions.