Life’s WORC Celebrates 50 Years of Helping People with Autism

life's worc
Victoria Schneps protesting the conditions at Willowbrook State School

Victoria Schneps is a dynamo of devotion and a catalyst for change for the needs of individuals with autism, developmental disabilities and special needs. For over a half century, Schneps has made it her life’s work to support Life’s WORC, an organization that she founded 50 years ago — and the tens of thousands of lives that they have positively impacted, cared for with dignity, and improved their quality of life.

For Schneps, her passion began with personal experience. Her daughter, Lara, suffered brain damage and seizures in her infancy. As a devoted parent, she first sought a cure for her daughter’s injuries, a search that later evolved into one for quality care. She located the Willowbrook State School on Staten Island, which was able to accept Lara in their Infant Rehabilitation Center.

It was Willowbrook that changed Schneps’ life, and it was Schneps who then changed the lives of countless individuals with special needs. Schneps, at the time a public school teacher in New York City, started Life’s WORC, an acronym for Women’s Organization for Retarded Children, as an advocacy, fundraising and volunteer organization. With the organization’s foundational meeting hosted in Schneps’ living room, Life’s WORC — founded primarily with neighbors and friends with healthy children who wanted to help — sought to aid the facility.

“They all felt compelled to volunteer because they were blessed with healthy children, many saying, ‘There but for the grace of God, go I,’” says Schneps.

L. to R.: Elizabeth, Lara and Victoria Schneps.
L. to R.: Elizabeth, Lara and Victoria Schneps.

However, shortly thereafter, New York State instituted significant budget cuts to the programs for this vulnerable population. With new limitations of resources came drastic negative impacts to the quality of care. Seeing firsthand the deplorable conditions at Willowbrook, Schneps and the women of Life’s WORC turned from volunteers into picketers and protestors, to bring change.

“We started a women’s organization to help volunteer and raise money for Willowbrook,” Schneps recalls. “About a year after we started our efforts, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller slashed the budget. With these slashes came drastic changes in the quality of care. These people at Willowbrook were helpless, like my daughter. They were living in conditions that were unsuitable for anyone — especially those, like my daughter, who required around-the-clock care to be fed, to be diapered and bathed.”

The facility was forcing children and others into tragic conditions that were both unsanitary and inhumane. At the same time, a young journalist was made aware of the problems arising at Willowbrook, thanks to Schneps. That reporter was Geraldo Rivera, who set his sights on telling the stories of the families and individuals at the facility — an exposé that would shock the world.

“I connected with Geraldo Rivera and he was snuck into the facility by a doctor who worked there,” Schneps says. “People were actually dying and Geraldo recognized the sad and tragic conditions that myself and many like me were going through, as our family members were helpless. Geraldo’s recognition of the importance of this story is why he is forever linked with our movement, our advocacy, and is a real champion for the needs of this community.”

Meanwhile, Schneps’ husband, an attorney, encouraged the families of Willowbrook to file a class action lawsuit against the facility, in concert with the American Civil Liberties Union. This legal effort was successful, bringing long-awaited justice to those involved.

“There was the hostility that we faced, but thankfully, the parents association of Willowbrook won the lawsuit,” says Schneps.

The shutdown brought awareness and sunlight to a system in desperate need. And, with the innovation of trained care professionals and the leadership of Schneps on the issue, Life’s WORC launched the state’s first-ever group home for children with special needs in Little Neck, Queens — with half of the residents coming from Willowbrook and others from the Queens community. This facility would soon become a model used across the state for humane and adequate care for this vulnerable population.

“Following the lawsuit, it paved the way for new laws on the books to allow for a new concept, embraced by the care providers of this vulnerable community, known as group homes,” Schneps says. “We laid the groundwork to revolutionize the industry, bringing dignified care to these individuals, while leaving the large-scale wards in the past. What this did was, it allowed group home settings to become lifetime homes for individuals with special needs, with peers and friends, activities and recreation. When we purchased the first group home, there was resistance in the community, and we won the case in Queens Supreme Court that ruled that group residences have rights to be in R1 and R2 residential neighborhoods.”

The state now funds group home settings, where qualified and certified caregivers with expertise, knowledge, education and training all contribute to the quality-of-life and independence-focused care model.

Geraldo Rivera, Victoria Schneps
Geraldo Rivera, Victoria Schneps

“Our biggest challenge, on the industry-wide level, is continuing to fight for New York State to properly staff and fund group homes,” Schneps states about where advocacy has been most impactful of late. “Many people in our community involve intense, personal care, which is costly, but critical. Group residences provide a warm home, where individuals can take pride in the progress they are making on a daily basis, and expand their personal horizons.”

While her involvement may have started 50 years ago, the advocacy continues for Schneps, whose life has been dedicated to bringing support for Life’s WORC. In recognition of her efforts, Life’s WORC will be honoring Schneps at their 50th Anniversary Celebration Gala scheduled for April 1, alongside Geraldo Rivera. The sold-out, star-studded gala is slated to take place at the Garden City Hotel.

Funding has poured in from many of New York’s most notable, including but not limited to a $50,000 donation from honoree Rivera and his current and former Fox News Channel colleagues. Top-rated news anchor Sean Hannity donated $50,000, as did former host Bill O’Reilly. Various other Long Islanders and New Yorkers have opened their wallets, and their hearts, to give to a cause that continues to thrive after five decades of changing lives for the better. Also contributing the maximum donations are the Koufakis family, the Rogan family, Subaru of America and the Manes Peace Prize Foundation.

“Life’s WORC has become my life’s work, literally,” Schneps says, “preventing atrocities like Willowbrook from ever happening again. It takes vigilance, it takes a commitment of a whole community, and it takes the generosity of those who are willing to support our cause. The support that Life’s WORC has gotten for our 50th Anniversary Gala is more than just overwhelming and humbling, but a statement that we remember Willowbrook, and we care to make sure that this never happens again.

“This 50th Anniversary Gala is really a celebration of people living with dignity in this vulnerable community, in comparison with what happened in the past,” she continues. “It’s a celebration of a new chapter that began with the bravery and courage of a few, and the dedication of many more to make sure that what happened in the past is never forgotten.”

Schneps says that Life’s WORC now operates 50 group residences, day programs and family centers for those with autism, and will soon open a job-training employment center.

“The Family Center for Autism in Garden City is offering art classes, music classes, cooking classes — all things that develop life skills for individuals,” Schneps adds. “At our family centers, we are helping not just those with autism and special needs, but also their families, with counseling and other resources.”

Schneps is now a community newspaper publisher, owning and operating 88 newspapers in the New York metropolitan area, with her son, Josh Schneps. That began in 1985 with her flagship publication The Queens Courier, but now includes such papers as amNew York Metro, the Long Island Press and Dan’s Papers, serving New York City, Long Island, Westchester and Rockland counties, Philadelphia and Palm Beach County.

Schneps says her inspiration to join the news media was the reporting done by Geraldo nearly five decades ago, which gave a voice to the voiceless and taught her the power of the press in affecting change.

“I found purpose in publishing,” Schneps says. “Our publications are the beacons of reporting by which New Yorkers and people around the world gather information and make informed decisions, find opinions and become inspired to act.

“While I see this as my job, my love and devotion is, and will always be, helping people with developmental disabilities and autism overcome challenges and live fulfilling lives,” she concludes. “That is my mission, and I am proud of all those who work with me towards this goal.”

For more, visit lifesworc.org.

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