Geraldo's Commencement Speech

by Geraldo Rivera | May 30, 2014

Trading Memories

‘It’s nice to be back.’ Isn’t that what we usually say when we return to some personal landmark location? And it is nice to be back under these happy circumstances, sharing this important, beautiful, sunny day with the first graduating cohort of the Bachelor of Science in Social Work here at the College of Staten Island.

I want to start by talking about all the wonderful things I’ve heard about you as a class. Like how, despite the fact that so many of your own lives were disrupted, some devastated by Hurricane Sandy, you nevertheless volunteered to help others worse off than you were, working long hours distributing food and clothing to those stricken by the deadly storm that struck here on Staten Island in October 2012.

And remembering that most of those who died here on Staten Island during Hurricane Sandy were people who were disabled and/or elderly, how so many of you sacrificed your own meager resources, despite the fact that over a dozen of you lost your own homes and personal belongings, fills me with admiration and respect.

But let me tell you why I have not been back to these lovely 200-acres that now comprise your campus in 27 years. It’s because I feared the experience would be too gut wrenching.

Back then, several years before this College was established, as you all know, these were the grounds of the notorious Willowbrook State School. With 5,400 residents, this was the nation’s largest and probably worst institution for the population then described as mentally retarded.

That last time I was here, September 1987 was for the closing ceremony. Newly elected governor Mario Cuomo and his predecessor former governor Hugh Carey presided over the end of an ugly chapter in American history, the era when we warehoused the mentally challenged, treating them worse than we treat stray dogs in the worse kennels.

During that closing ceremony, I was presented a framed key to the ‘B’ ward of Building #6. It was the same key I had used fifteen years before, in January 1972 to gain access, with my cameras, to hell on earth.

I wasn’t much older than most of you when I first came here. And because no one in my family was developmentally disabled, I had no idea what to expect. What I saw that day 42 years ago is seared into my soul. Not to dwell on the horrors of Willowbrook on this happy occasion, but it was beyond horrible.

60 or 70 children or people I took to be children were crowded in that one ward, with just one attendant to care for them. Many of them were naked and smeared with their own feces, and they were making a mournful sound it is impossible to forget. They were fed assembly-line style. They would be lined up and the attendant would shovel a kind of grey porridge into their mouths. Not surprisingly, the most common cause of death was pneumonia caused by the food getting in their lungs.

Since that expose, and the efforts of crusading parents, doctors and the media, the way the United States and the rest of the civilized world cares for the developmentally disabled has totally changed. Now, we know that you can’t mass-produce care for the disabled the way you mass-produce automobiles.

Now, everything has changed. Now, there are no more institutions like Willowbrook. Now, the developmentally disabled are cared for in small, community-based residences like those established by ‘Life’s WORC’, an organization started by the parents of children who lived and died in Willowbrook.

And my proudest moments in life come when young people like you graduates come up to me and say, ‘I became a social worker because of your Willowbrook exposes.’

So go out there and be a tireless crusader for your clients. Raise hell, and fight the powers that be. Give the people under your care all you can so that they can lead the best possible life.

Knowing what I know about the courage and determination this graduating class has already displayed, I can say that the new memory of this day will be what I think of now, when I remember Willowbrook. Thank you for that. And Congratulations.

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