- Joy and purpose permeated the Independent Group Home Living (IGHL) Anniversary Gala as hundreds of supporters reveled in celebration of an organization whose mission to bring dignity to the lives of people with developmental disabilities is as fundamental as any that challenges our humanity.
IGHL Executive Director Walter W. Stockton and sports commentator Ann Liguori.
The absolutely first class affair was held at Flowerfield in Saint James, truly one of the most beautiful catering facilities on Long Island. Attendees, who included consumers (which is how IGHL defines the people they serve) and their families, IGHL staffers and volunteers along with corporate and individual supporters, strolled the Eden like interior smartly dressed and partaking of an exquisite buffet and cocktails. Once again, Rock & Roll Hall of Famer and legendary Traffic guitarist, Dave Mason
provided the event's entertainment.
I caught up early with the IGHL Executive Director, Walter W. Stockton
, who was working the room greeting and thanking guests for their support. He explained the mission of IGHL and why it deserves our support, "We deal with our most fragile population. Because of an accident at birth these people, in the past, have been treated worse than our most harden criminals. These are very, very special people that deserve a life like anybody else. We need to help to do that, and that is why we need people's checks."
Large screen televisions throughout the venue broadcasted information about IGHL featuring some of the 50 facilities its manages across Long Island, its highly successful programs, testimonials from families of consumers and the consumers themselves, along with highlights of galas past. One of which, last year's gala, featured former Alaskan governor and vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin
who, as the mother of a Downs Syndrome child and advocate for the developmentally disabled, was named the 30th anniversary honoree.
Jim McCann of 1-800-FLOWERS, a long time supporter of IGHL.
This year's honoree was Dennis Suskind
, Vice-Chairman of Bridgehampton National Bank (BNB), whose commitment to IGHL is also, like Palin's, particularly personal, "It feels fantastic and somewhat humbling. I grew up on Staten Island, as you will hear later, on Willowbrook Road. So I spent a lot of time at Willowbrook State School not understanding what it was all about. When I became acquainted a few years ago with IGHL those memories came back and I was blown away emotionally with guilt and all sorts of things."
Exposed nationally by Geraldo Rivera
in 1972, the New York State run school for the mentally disabled was eventually closed because of overcrowding, poor sanitary conditions, and physical and sexual abuse of the residents by the school's staff. The creation of IGHL by concerned Islanders followed fast on the heels of the revelation of the horrors of Willowbrook. It represented all that was wrong with the treatment of the mentally disabled not only in the state, but across the nation.
BNB President Kevin O'Connor
explained his bank's support for local organizations like IGHL, whose direct government support suffers during times of economic difficulties, "It is paramount for us. This is why we are here and why we are successful. Business is one thing, but to be able to give back to the community is something we are very proud of and part of the heritage of our organization."
One of the IGHL's oldest and most successful programs is their Flower Barn affiliate facility in Moriches, where residents of the Day Habilitation Program (DHP) are permitted to work 30 percent of their time in the greenhouse and nursery for pay. According to the IGHL website, DHP "provide[s] instruction in self-help, socialization, adaptive skills and development of manual and perceptual motor skills. Training areas include mobility training, appropriate social behaviors, communication skills, basic safety skills, housekeeping, personal/health care, and money management with an emphasis on community inclusion."
The crowd of 500 spilled over into another room where they watched Master of Ceremonies Dr. Max Gomez on the big screen.
It was no coincidence that 1-800-FLOWERS founder Jim McCann
was in attendance at the gala, "I have been associated with IGHL for about 20 years and I think they do fantastic work. I have a brother who is a resident at one of the IGHL group homes. It has been fantastic for him and even better for our family. The only down stroke is that I wish my parents were alive to see how well he is doing."
Another supporter in attendance was State Senator Kenneth P. LaValle
, "I have been a long supporter of IGHL. They have provided independent living facilities for individuals with special needs. They provide some of the best homes and the kind of back-up training and support for individuals who have become very productive citizens of our state and country."
Bridgehampton National Bank President Kevin O'Connor and his wife Mary.
Well known and respected Setauket attorney and Mather Hospital Chairman of the Board Kenneth A. Jacoppi
noted the diversity of the IGHL support, "You'll see tonight people from all stratus of society, it crosses all lines. They do a wonderful job helping these people that so need our help."
After the cocktail hour we joined fellow Hamptons.com columnist and internationally respected sports commentator Ann Liguori
and other supporters at our table for the awards ceremony. The altruistic Liguori has her own charitable foundation which focuses on cancer research and prevention, but enthusiastically lends her support to IGHL, "I saw the work that Walter Stockton was doing and he is just a visionary and very hands on! He is so devoted and he asked me to come on board and help with their marketing. I handled the media last year when Sarah Palin was honored. The more you learn about this organization, the more you see their outreach in the community and the amazing work that they do."
After opening remarks, IGHL Foundation Director Frank Lombardi
introduced the evening's master of ceremonies, acclaimed CBS-TV health reporter and commentator, Dr. Max Gomez
. Executive Director Stockton and IGHL Board Chairman Konrad J. Kuhn
also made remarks leading up to the introduction of honoree Suskind, who became tearful during his acceptance speech recalling his youthful friendship with the son of a Willowbrook doctor and the shame of his ignorance of the atrocities that were inflicted upon the mentally disabled at the state run facility, literally along the same block on which he grew up. Through tears he said, "We pretended not to hear the horrible noises that were coming from those ugly buildings as we walked by to the tennis courts and gym."
Honoree Dennis Suskind with presenter Donna Ray, a long time IGHL resident and consumer.
Suskind, who described Willowbrook as the "antithesis of IGHL," went on to describe the shame he felt for "not confronting my friend or his father at the time about the despicable conditions at Willowbrook" when he was first given a "nook-and-cranny" tour of IGHL by Stockton. Suskind, whose support for IGHL has more than made up for his youthful ignorance and hesitation, was presented the beautifully crafted award by long time IGHL resident and consumer Donna Ray
who, frankly, brought a tear to all our eyes.
Stockton took the opportunity of the awards ceremony to herald the work of several consumers, volunteers and staff members of the IGHL community. All in attendance and featured on the big screens, along with those in memoriam who had passed, were passionately recognized with thunderous applause.
After the awards presentation I spoke with Dr. Gomez who put the Willowbrook investigation into the context of its impact on the treatment of mentally disabled people, "It is frightening to think that we treated our fellow human beings that way. It was shocking! Like you said, we'd like to think that it was something that existed way back in the past when, in fact, it was happening much more recently than any of us would care to admit."
Hall of Fame Traffic guitarist Dave Mason.
Gomez went on to relay a story about a documentary he had done about the history of medicine in Philadelphia when he worked there earlier in his career. Founded by Benjamin Franklin
, America's oldest hospital is Pennsylvania Hospital, which has a moat around the back of it with doors leading into where the "crazy people" were kept in the basement. Twice a day they were let out for fresh air and the hospital sold tickets to the local townspeople to come and watch the patients like they were side show freaks. As Gomez noted, "That was in the 1700s and in many ways in the 1900s we had not come very far. In truth, in some ways we were doing even worse. God bless journalists like Geraldo for bringing it to light, because God only knows how long that might have gone on had he not."
Albeit an unrelated text to developmental disabilities, 19th century British writer Thomas De Quincey
wrote, "Even imperfection itself may have its ideal or perfect state." Although imperfect itself, mankind has for thousands of years ignored, abused or segregated those among the family of man considered developmentally disabled. The ignorance of which manifested itself in institutions from the 15th century Bethlem Royal Hospital in England (Bedlam) to, yes, the 20th century New York State chamber of horrors known as Willowbrook for literally centuries.
James and Ann Canniff, and Alice and Ken Jacoppi.
It is the marginally perfect among the imperfect like Stockton, Kuhn, and their honoree Suskind that have rallied the rest of us less than perfect people in defense of those that cannot defend themselves. Through unselfish dedication and relentless tenacity they have endeavored to create that "ideal or perfect state" in a less than ideal or perfect world for the innocents who, as Stockton said, are nothing more than victims of "an accident at birth."
What better altruism than the support of a human soul? Write a check, lend a hand, buy your flowers at Flower Barn in support of an organization that enables, empowers and protects those among us that cannot protect themselves.
For more information go to www.ighl.org
Frequently mistaken for the "Most Interesting Man in the World" from the Dos Equis commercials and the iconic gray-bearded Sean Connery, DMH is the Senior Contributing Editor at Hamptons.com. www.hamptons.com