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Willowbrook exhibit coming to Ogdensburg


United Helpers Mosaic beginning this week will offer the public an opportunity to remember what is arguably the most infamous chapter in the history of modern American managed health care.

The state Office for People With Developmental Disabilities-sponsored “Remembering Willowbrook” traveling exhibit will open at the Mosaic complex, 100 Ford St., in Ogdensburg, on Friday at 1 p.m., kicking off an April 15-19 stand that will be open to the public from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

Last year marked the 25th anniversary of the closing of the Willowbrook Developmental Center in Staten Island. Famously exposed in the 1970s by then New York City television reporter Geraldo Rivera for its residents’ horrific, squalid living conditions, its shutdown also marked the start of policy shifts that saw people with developmental disabilities moved out of institutions and into community-based services. “Remembering Willowbrook” depicts the time line and progression of service delivery from Willowbrook to present time.

“Willowbrook was a wake-up call for not only the state of New York but society as a whole,” said Michele M. Montroy, Mosaic’s administrator. “It was basically a warehouse for individuals with developmental disabilities. As (then New York U.S. Sen.) Robert F. Kennedy said after a tour of the facility in 1965, ‘at Willowbrook , we have a situation that borders on a snake pit.’”

Ms. Montroy credits the Rivera report as a game changer for profession.

“It was not a gross exception to the system for services in 1972,” she said. “Geraldo Rivera actually began his career by breaking this story to the public. His expose, “Willowbrook: The Last Great Disgrace,” shows not only the conditions at Willowbrook, but also shows conditions at Letchworth Village, another institution for people with developmental disabilities at the time. It can be shocking in spots.”

The expose, Ms. Montroy added, “sparked the move from institutionalization for the developmentally disabled to community-based settings. This started with residential options such a intermediate care facilities and individualized residential alternatives. United Helpers began providing these services in the early 1980s.”

The progress continues.

“Amazing strides have also been made with regard to personal choice, personal preferences, and individualized care,” Ms. Montroy said. “Housing was certainly the beginning of the movement, the dramatic shift from the ‘one plan and one place” for all. But the work that has been done to treat each person like an individual has truly been the most significant change. Another key change in services is the integration of people into their local communities. A great example of this is our Day Habilitation program. We have 30 people who attend our Day Habilitation and provide a lot of support for local service organizations, including local animal shelters, farmers, churches, libraries, and Meals on Wheels.”

In conjunction with the exhibit, Mosaic will showcase the first annual Resident art show. The show features artwork created by Mosaic’s residents

Mosaic offers homes and services for people with developmental disabilities and traumatic brain injury.

“We are very excited to honor twenty five years of deinstitutionalization and the strides that have been made toward individualized care,” Ms. Montroy said. “Since the early 80s, the United Helpers organization has worked to develop services that enhance the lives of those we serve. We celebrate the efforts that have been made and the progress that tomorrow promises as well.”

“Willowbrook: The Last Great Disgrace” can be viewed on YouTube at

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