It was four decades ago when reporter Geraldo Rivera exposed the brutal living conditions inside Staten Island-based Willowbrook State School, which at the time was the largest institution in the country serving kids with developmental disabilities.
For Rivera, now a host on the cable news juggernaut Fox News Channel, the experience proved to be a seminal moment, as he continues to raise awareness about autism and other developmental disabilities.
“Families with autistic children work heroically to provide them the care and services they need to enjoy life,” Rivera told the Press. “It is a tough job, often lonely and unrecognized. They need our help, especially because government doesn’t always step up to the plate.”
As a sign of how far autism awareness has come, hundreds of people last week attended the 30th Annual Geraldo Rivera Golf & Tennis Classic, a fundraiser to help support the nonprofit Life’s WORC, which recently opened The Family Center for Autism in Garden City.
That Rivera was doing his part to help inspire people to support Life’s WORC is no surprise. While reporting on Willowbrook State for WABC-TV in 1972, Rivera met Vicki Schneps, the nonprofit’s founder and whose daughter, Lara, was a resident of the defunct institution. Lara was among 5,000 other young people crammed into the derelict school, which fell into disrepair following state funding cuts. Schneps is also co-publisher of Long Island Press.
Schneps later founded Life’s WORC, which now supports more than 1,500 people with developmental disabilities and autism across Long Island and Queens. To better support its mission, the nonprofit recently opened The Family Center for Autism in Garden City, which is open seven days a week and offers a variety of services for people with autism.
To Rivera, Life’s WORC symbolized the quintessential charity.
“It provided the services so woefully lacking in the big institutions of that dark era,” he said, referring to infamous Willowbrook State.
Among the most common problems associated with autism spectrum disorder is an inability to communicate effectively. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 68 children have autism spectrum disorder, which is most common among boys (one in 42).
Researchers have said the best way to treat autism spectrum disorder is through early intervention. Another way to address it is to develop a cohesive support structure that includes providing assistance to families, Rivera noted.
“Autistic children often have acute needs,” Rivera said. “As they grow to adulthood, their developmental lags. They can become a handful for a parent, who is also aging. What happens when the parent can no longer care for the autistic individual? This really is a situation that ‘takes a village.’”