Ribbon-cutting will feature NYC Mayor Eric Adams, New York State Assemblyman Michael Cusick, and Geraldo Rivera on the Willowbrook campus to commemorate the dedication and opening of the 12-station trail on former Willowbrook State School grounds.
As part of the 2022 Year of Willowbrook at the College of Staten Island/CUNY, the Willowbrook Legacy Project will present its highlighted event of the year, the official opening of the Willowbrook Mile, a 12-station memorial trail on the former grounds of the Willowbrook State School, on Saturday, September 17, 35 years to the day of Willowbrook State School’s closing.
The Willowbrook Mile, which actually measures 2.2 miles of trail on the campuses of the College of Staten Island, the New York State Office of People With Developmental Disabilities, and the Elizabeth Connelly Center, will be opened to the community after the dedication ceremonies on September 17, to be attended by New York City Mayor Eric Adams; New York State Assemblyman Michael J. Cusick, who allocated resources for the construction of the Mile; Geraldo Rivera, whose televised exposé of the Willowbrook State School marked its 50th anniversary in 2022; and former Staten Island Advance reporter Jane Kurtin, whose stories brought many of the horrors of Willowbrook to original light. They will be joined by representatives from the College of Staten Island, including Interim President Timothy G. Lynch, the OPWDD, and the Staten Island Developmental Disabilities Council, the three partner institutions behind the Mile, to help launch the event. The ceremonies, which begin in the College‘s Center for the Arts, will be overseen by members of the Willowbrook Legacy Committee, co-chaired by Nora Santiago and Dr. Catherine Lavender. Diane Buglioli, a former employee of the Willowbrook State School, and now community advocate for the disabled and co-founder of A Very Special Place, Inc., will deliver keynote greetings.
“Cementing this project into the history of our campus is an important milestone for the College of Staten Island, and has special significance to me,” said Santiago, who has been attached to the construction of the Mile since its inception. “The Mile commemorates the decades of struggle that took place at Willowbrook and other institutions and celebrates how far we’ve come from the tragic institutionalization of people with disabilities. As a mother of a young man with Autism, I strive to be a fervent advocate to ensure that my son Nathaniel and others will avoid a similar outcome.”
Santiago also mentioned how the Mile would not have happened without the tireless work of so many attached to the project. “This project would have not been possible without the decades of tireless advocacy from our community partners and my colleagues at CSI,” she said.
After welcoming remarks in the Williamson Theatre on Saturday to kick-off the event, attendants will then navigate to the Willowbrook Mile’s Halloran Hospital station (No. 5), for the official ribbon-cutting exercises. Refreshments will follow back in the Center for the Arts, while various guided tours will also take place for those who wish to take in portions or the entirety of the Mile. Also in the 1P Atrium will be a number of exhibits. In the CSI Gallery, Siona Wilson has curated an exhibition of photography by Eric Aerts, the late Staten Island Advance photojournalist who accompanied Jane Kurtin when she reported on Willowbrook. There will also be exhibits about the Mile and its design by architect Jorma Loci. Willowbrook-related materials in the College’s Special Collections and Archives will be on display in the Library Rotunda. The event will be captured on video and will be made available through the Willowbrook YouTube channel.
Post-event, the Willowbrook Mile will be open to the public, with maps and brochures available at the Public Safety Desk in the CSI Library (IL). Audio versions of the stations and supporting materials are available for blind/low vision visitors.
The CSI Today Talks podcast recently featured Willowbrook Legacy Committee Co-Chair Dr. Catherine Lavender, in which she gives her thoughts about the Year of Willowbrook and the Willowbrook Mile. The September 12th edition can be accessed on the CSI Today Talks Website.
About Willowbrook State School and The Willowbrook Mile
Willowbrook State School was the largest institution in the world in which people with disabilities were locked away from society. In 1938, the New York State Legislature had authorized the building of a school for what they then termed “mental defectives.” The Willowbrook site was selected and the buildings erected in the early 1940s. However, when the U.S. entered the Second World War, the site was turned over to the military for use as a hospital and prisoner-of-war camp, Halloran Hospital, and operated in that capacity until 1951. As Halloran Hospital was closing down, the property returned to its original intended purpose as the Willowbrook State School. It opened in 1947, intended to serve as a model of treatment for persons with intellectual and other disabilities.
When it opened, Willowbrook attempted to provide better care in an institutional setting than could be provided at home. However, the mere scope and size of the more-than-380-acre Willowbrook State School impaired its ability to provide normal, personalized comfort and care. As conditions worsened, a group of residents’ families and staff urged change. By the 1970s, they invited reporters to share the story more widely. Media coverage and this activism led to a lawsuit resulting in a 1975 Consent Judgement ordering that Willowbrook residents receive humane treatment and adequate clinical and educational services. This also set in motion the eventual closure of Willowbrook in 1987 and began the development of community-based services. Along with the 1975 Education for All Handicapped Children Act, the Willowbrook Judgement helped lead to later key legal protections, including the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
In the early 1990s, spurred by a conviction that nothing like the Willowbrook story should ever happen again, the Staten Island Developmental Disabilities Council, the primary advocacy group on Staten Island for persons with disabilities and their families, formed the Willowbrook Property Planning Committee. They began to work on collecting and preserving the history of the Willowbrook State School and to increase the visibility of the stories of those who had once lived and worked in the facility.
In the 2010s, the Staten Island Developmental Disabilities Council partnered with the other stakeholders on the Willowbrook site: the College of Staten Island/CUNY, the Institute for Basic Research (IBR), and the Office for People with Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD) – to establish a memorial walking trail that has become the Willowbrook Mile. The Mile is designed to preserve the site’s history, and to create a visionary presence that commemorates the social justice and deinstitutionalization movement to ensure the rights of all persons to live with dignity and thrive in their communities.