In what was a rousing ceremony that started in the College of Staten Island’s Center for the Arts and fanned out to the official ribbon-cutting at a Willowbrook Mile station located just outside, the official unveiling and dedication of the Willowbrook Mile took place this afternoon, with more than 300 visitors joining a team of distinguished guests to usher the marquee event of Year of Willowbrook programming.
CSI Interim President Timothy G. Lynch was joined by Kerri Neifeld, Commissioner at the Office for People With Developmental Disabilities, and Diane Peruggia, Chair of the Staten Island Developmental Disabilities Council, delivering greetings to the large gathering collected in the Center for the Arts’ Williamson Theatre, introduced by Willowbrook Legacy Committee Co-Chair, Dr. Catherine Lavender. The three units principally collaborated on the Willowbrook Mile, a 12-station accessible tour, now open to the public, which tells the story of the Willowbrook State School, from construction to closure, and the advocacy that continues today for those with disabilities.
“Many years of collaborative work are now on full display today,” said Dr. Lynch in his remarks. “We share the many emotions we feel for those who lived through Willowbrook, and who continue to live it today, in their memory or through their life’s work. Our hope is that the Mile offers reflection, peace, and a place to come home to – to share the story, to educate others, and to help in the continued advocacy for the disabled community.”
Also offering introductory words were Arthur Webb, former OPWDD Commissioner at the time of the Willowbrook State School’s closure, and Kenichi Iwama, former CSI Vice President for Economic Development, who helped kick off the Mile’s planning in 2016. They gave way to the morning’s keynote speaker, Diane Buglioli, current Willowbrook Legacy Committee member, community advocate, and founder of A Very Special Place, Inc.
“Like each of us, this property has evolved,” Buglioli stated. “The original 380-acre Willowbrook campus is presently the site of a four-year college, a resource center for people with disabilities, a renowned research institute, and now the Mile. This property has evolved into something it never was before. it is progressive, educational, creative, inclusive, and collaborative.”
From there, the scene shifted outdoors to the ribbon-cutting ceremonies, where Willowbrook Legacy Committee Co-Chair Nora Santiago helped lead stirring remarks from another collection of speakers. New York State Assemblymember Michael Cusick, who allocated a major portion of resources for the construction of the Mile, offered words, as did Chair of the CSI Foundation’s Adopt-a-Bench Campaign, Jay Chazanoff. Laura Kennedy, Willowbrook Legacy Committee member, represented those in the Willowbrook Consent Judgment, while self-advocate and Willowbrook Legacy Committee member Eric Goldberg also addressed the gathering, getting them to repeat the phrase, “light to the cause,” a signal to advocacy still tied to the project. Geraldo Rivera, whose exposé on the Willowbrook State School 50 years ago garnered national attention to the horrors that existed at the school, also provided remarks, as he was joined by former Willowbrook resident Bernard Carabello.
“We knew the conditions at Willowbrook were horrifying and needed remediation,” said Rivera. “We could never imagine that 50 years later, 35 years after (Willowbrook’s) closure, we would be here celebrating the progress we’ve made, and continuing to guard against deterioration. The world has changed for the disabled. They have come out of the shadows. Their futures are part of our lives. Onward and upward, the fight continues.”
With hands adjoined, Buglioli, Rivera, Carabello, and Cusick led in the taking of the ceremonial golden scissors to cut the ribbon. They were flanked by dozens of distinguished guests that included Congressperson Nicole Malliotakis, Staten Island Borough President Vito Fossella, New York State Senator Diane Savino, New York State Assemblymember Michael Tannousis, New York State Assemblymember Michael Reilly, New York Board of Regents’ Dr. Christine Cea, CUNY Trustee Michael Arvanites, Dr. Michael Wilkins, Dr. William Bronston, Jihoon Kim, Deputy Secretary to Governor Hochul for Human Services and Mental Hygiene, and staff from the OPWDD, SIDDC, and CSI, as well as the rest of the Willowbrook Legacy Committee.
Following the ribbon-cutting, guests were welcomed back to the Center for the Arts for lunch and refreshments. They also took part in the CSI Art Gallery’s showing of Eric Aerts’s photography of Willowbrook that was published alongside Staten Island Advance reporter Jane Kurtin’s series of investigative articles exposing conditions at Willowbrook in 1971. Willowbrook Mile tours were also arranged for guests who wished to take in portions or the entirety of the Mile. There were also exhibits about the Mile and its design by architect Jorma Loci, and Willowbrook-related materials in the College’s Special Collections and Archives were on display in the Library (Building 1L) Rotunda.
The Willowbrook Mile is now officially open to the public, with maps and brochures available at the Public Safety Desk in the CSI Library). Audio versions of the stations and supporting materials are available for visually impaired visitors.
The ribbon-cutting ceremony was recorded and is posted on the Willowbrook YouTube Page.
See photos taken at the ceremony as part of the Willowbrook Photo Gallery (more photos to be added soon).
A full-length video of the Willowbrook Mile Dedication Ceremony will also be posted soon on the Willowbrook YouTube page.