47 THE QUEENS COURIER • APRIL 8, 2022 FOR BREAKING NEWS VISIT WWW.QNS.COM
It was a beautiful night as I
accepted kudos for founding
Life’s WORC, along with the brilliant
journalist Geraldo Rivera, for
our work in helping impact the lives
of people with special needs and
It all started with my darling
It seems like yesterday when, with
great joy, aft er fi ve years of marriage,
Murray and I were having our fi rst
child. But within hours of her birth,
Lara turned blue in the nursery and
suff ered irreparable brain damage.
Her life changed forever and so
Th e fi rst year of her life was a
search for an answer to
her seizures. We were
in and out of hospitals
for a cure.
Week of recalling history
Our journey for answers stopped
when our pediatric neurologist Dr.
Richard Ruben looked us in the
eyes and with a tender voice told us
that Lara would forever be developmentally
Our hope for a cure crashed down
on us. Th ere was to be no cure, but
being an optimist I hoped there
would be a therapy program for
her. But in 1969 and into 1970,
there were no programs in the
And so Murray and I
began the next journey from
a cure to a place of hope
Family friend Olga Rutner
researched places near our
home in Bayside. Some people
shared places in Denmark
and across the nation out west. I
couldn’t stand being far from my
little darling, so when Olga told us
about a place on Staten Island at the
Willowbrook State School campus
that had just opened an infant rehabilitation
center called the “Baby
Buildings,” a place of hope, that
off ered physical and occupational
therapy daily, we thought that was
the place for Lara.
So with many tears and fear,
but also hope, we brought her
Within weeks, several
dear friends and family
members suggested we start
a group to help the children
like Lara at Willowbrook.
So, from my living room
sofa, WORC (Women’s
Organization for Retarded
Children) was born.
Our wonderful women volunteered
and raised money
for the 5,400 people who lived
there, but within the year, severe
budget cuts from Gov. Nelson
Rockefeller slashed the staff that
took care of my Lara, who had to
be fed, diapered and bathed.
Little did I know what was happening
behind the dozens of closed
wards. But Dr. Wilkins, a caring,
but angry, frustrated doctor working
on the large, 375-acre campus,
had a friend in the media.
So in the dark of night, he snuck
Sol, Erica and Geraldo
with Bill O’Reilly.
in with his friend Geraldo Rivera.
Th ey climbed walls and “crashed”
past locked doors with Geraldo’s
cameraman to fi nd shocking sights
People were half-naked, rocking
on the fl oor with moaning sounds
fi lling the concrete fl oors and walls.
Geraldo’s tremendous, award-winning
reporting exposed those conditions.
His words still ring in my
head: “I can show you the pictures.
I can share the sounds. But how do I
describe the smells?”
To this day, his Emmy Awardwinning
draws tears to my
As the crisis at
Murray believed the
only way to help Lara
and the thousands
of people there was
to fi le a federal class
action lawsuit. So we
did, and aft er years of
what came to be called
Wars,” we were victorious
in the courts
and Willowbrook was
fi nally closed. In its
place, small family homes were created
with nearby day programs in
Fast forward to today and
Life’s WORC (formerly
WORC) will be opening its
50th home and at our 50th
Anniversary Gala, raised
$1 million to build a job
training program for people
with special needs and
Th e next step of services is
in the plans, but a lot depends
on the state budget about to be
Sadly, even as we accomplished
miracles over the years, the
“Willowbrook Wars” seem to never
end. Th e “Angels” who care for the
people we serve are desperately in
need of salary increases and funds
for services for our clients aft er years
of severe slashes. We must fi ght for
We all wait with hope that we can,
as Bill O’Reilly said in his brilliant
remarks at our gala, ensure that the
pursuit of happiness be assured to
the people who Life’s WORC serves.
I know Life’s WORC will continue
and I am committed to what has
become my life’s work!
My three surviving children,
Elizabeth (born two years aft er
Lara), Samantha (born six years
aft er Lara) and Josh (born eight
years aft er Lara) shared their loving
feelings, delivered on a video
they previously recorded. My heart
swelled with pride.
Th eir beautiful children joined
me on stage as we held
hands to toast to the
future. Th eir shining
faces and the standing
ovation in front of
the more than 400 people
at the Garden City
Hotel’s grand ballroom
made me feel Lara up
in heaven was looking
down on us saying,
“Th anks, Mom,
and my Life’s WORC
She lives on forever!
See more photos
from the event on
Me and my family at the gala.
and Bill O’Reilly.
Dr. Harvey Manes
with his family.
Lara with her siblings.
Tom Suozzi presented Geraldo and I with
flfl ags that had flfl own over the capital!
Lynn Koufakis and I with
John and Denise Buran.
Demetra Mattone, Milena
Kabbani and Toni Cimino.