Alice Catalano, Willowbrook Survivor, Celebrates her 75th Birthday!

On August 4th , Alice Catalano celebrated her 75th birthday at Jimmy Max, surrounded by friends and family. But this wasn’t any ordinary birthday party. Alice, alongside her two grown sons, celebrated not only her birthday: but her freedom, independence, and fulfilling life as well. You see, Alice spent the early years of her life at the Willowbrook State School, right here on Staten Island. 2022 marks 50 years from when a 25-year-old Alice celebrated the beginning of the Willowbrook shutdown.

Alice, supported by On Your Mark for over 40 years, has overcome immeasurable challenges to be where she is today. On Your Mark Development Coordinators Eva Holtermann and Nadia Bennacer sat down with her earlier this year to capture her story firsthand. With the help of her Community Habilitation Direct Support Professional (or Com Hab DSP), Dorothy Tancredi, Alice took us through her life’s journey, sparing no details! She’s no stranger telling her story and now serves as an advocate and educator about Willowbrook and her new life at On Your Mark.

Alice was born in 1947 to a single mother in Bronx, New York. After a number of years, they moved to Brooklyn, and at the age of eight, Alice was removed from her mother, sent to a Catholic Institution run by nuns upstate. Although Alice missed her mother very much, she enjoyed her years upstate. As a young girl, she went to mass regularly and practiced the Catholic religion, which provided a solid foundation for her optimism and spirituality today. She unfortunately began to fall behind on her schoolwork and consequently was placed at Willowbrook. When asked to describe Willowbrook, Alice answered, “Very bad, very depressing, very sad. I didn’t like it there. I had no friends and no one to associate with. I would hang out by myself. I couldn’t act independent – all we could do was walk around the campus 24/7. There was not much to do. We went to a building where they had dancing…every Thursday. I taught myself how to dance!” (Fast forward 50 years: Alice is one of the best dancers at On Your Mark!)

Alice says, “Willowbrook was a bad place but I [fought] the system. I used to run away to my mother in Brooklyn. When my mother came to visit me, she gave me her home address and I’d wait for everyone to go to sleep and then I’d climb out the basement window to go visit her. I would take the bus. They used to call the cops and take me back and lock me in Building 23 – the ‘lock up building.’ They would put me in the ‘seclusion room.’”

Eventually, Alice took a job at Willowbrook in the “baby building” and assisted workers with dressing, feeding, and changing the infant residents. She also served as a porter, moving heavy furniture, and cleaning and maintaining the buildings. (A job not quite fit for a young teenager.) After several months, she was unable to perform manual labor as she became pregnant with her first son William in 1972, the year Willowbrook began to close.

“When I got pregnant, they couldn’t do nothing to me no more,” she states. “I didn’t know where I was going to live. I got pregnant on the grounds and stayed there for nine months. They took me to St. Vincent’s to give birth and they wanted me to sign papers to give [him] up and I said ‘no.’ I refused to sign the papers. They took him to foster care and took me back to Willowbrook to live there another couple of years.”

Now with another life to worry about, Alice’s survival became even more purposeful. “I think I saved my own life,” she says. “There was an attendant from Building 23 who tried to poison me. There was a lot of people there who thought we were stupid. They tried to abuse us, but I knew what they were doing. I knew they were trying to hurt us. I had to survive one way or the other. I wasn’t scared of the outside world. I was ready to get out.”

With all eyes on the shutdown of Willowbrook, resources increased for these individuals. Eventually, Alice was able to get the attention of a social service agency who advised the courts that if they could get her an apartment and she was able to take care of herself; she would be able to take William back. Alice was able to live independently after obtaining an apartment. She went on to live on Jersey Street for a couple of years and eventually got William back when he was three years old. “It was hard. I was on welfare. I had to struggle. He had Epilepsy and I’d have to get him to the emergency room. The social workers from Seaview would help me give him medicine, but I knew a lot because when I lived in Willowbrook I worked in the baby building. I knew how to feed [babies] and change their diapers.” Alice had her second son, Steven, in 1978.

In the years to follow, (former On Your Mark Executive Director) Eugene Spatz met Alice and began providing her with support for her two sons. Thinking back, Alice remembers, “I got [my sons] in programs because I didn’t want them running the streets.” A new non-profit at the time, On Your Mark was primarily providing Respite services for children with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities. William, Steven, and Alice grew up with the help of On Your Mark. They now all reside in apartments supported by the agency. “On Your Mark supported me throughout the years – now I have a nice apartment. I keep in touch with John Bilotti – he helps me a lot and he does a lot of good things for me. I call him all the time! My two sons work now.” William works as a mechanic and Steven works in a restaurant – two successful, independent men.

Alice attends programming at On Your Mark’s P.R.I.M.E. (People Receiving Individualized Mature Experiences) Day Habilitation site. The “P.R.I.M.E. program takes us to a lot of places. They take me to the boardwalk and to Coney Island, and [my Com Hab DSPs] take me to all my doctor appointments. I [still] love my dancing and my music!” She currently resides in a beautiful apartment near Silver Lake. According to her Com Hab DSP Dorothy, “Alice keeps everyone on their toes at On Your Mark and we all enjoy working with her tremendously.” She continues with tears in her eyes, “and on a personal note, I thank On Your Mark for giving me the opportunity to learn so much from this incredible lady.”

Happy 75th Birthday, Alice! We are so proud of all you have accomplished.

Special Tees and Novel Tees Partner to Save Jobs

On Your Mark + Community Resources = A TEE-RIFFIC Pair!

               Staten Island is known for having a myriad of services for people with intellectual/developmental disabilities and/or mental health diagnoses.  Each organization approaches care differently, but they all operate with the same goal in mind: to provide each individual with supportive services that help them to achieve the highest level of independence possible so they may lead a rewarding, productive life.  The pandemic forced most agencies to reassess and reevaluate their programs.  Many found that what was once sustainable proved to be ineffective in this new normal.  But despite the tough decisions that had to be made, many of these organizations banded together to support one another and overcome these challenges. 

Just a few months ago, Community Resources Staten Island (CRSI) was forced to close its doors to its beloved small business, Special Tees.  Special Tees has been the “heart” of CRSI and a staple in the Staten Island community for over 20 years, providing customized tee-shirts for hundreds of businesses, families, and organizations.  It employed 12 individuals with varying diagnoses.  It was not just a business but a place of opportunity, giving people with disabilities meaningful employment experiences.

Back in November of 2020, Community Resources appointed Mary Rafferty as their new Executive Director, who was soon after followed by Anna Opsha as their CFO, and Michael DeGrottole as their COO.  Like many of their counterparts, the organization was facing many financial challenges and this new senior leadership team had to prioritize restructuring many of their programs and departments.  In order to sustain everyday programming, they had to come to terms with some difficult decisions.  “Closing Special Tees lead to a lot of broken hearts.  We had to let go of some things, all while staying true to our mission.  Unfortunately, small businesses have been affected across the map.  But we didn’t just have a small business.  We had 12 individuals that needed employment.  We had to make sure our difficult decision didn’t harm them. We had to get creative” said DeGrottole.  CRSI’s senior leadership had to brainstorm ways to salvage these individual’s positions, some of whom had been working at Special Tees for over 15 years.  CRSI found positions internally for 4 of their employees but were still at a loss for the remaining 8.  As Special Tees permanently closed in September 2021, “we had to think of who else does this? Who has the same mission and vision that we do?” asked DeGrottole. 

“We received the call from Community Resources in the beginning of September inquiring about our tee-shirt shop Novel-Tees” says John Bilotti, Executive Director of On Your Mark.  “CR expressed their concern for their individuals who were out of a job, and we knew what we had to do.”  Under the supervision of Joseph Gori, Director of Employment Initiatives at On Your Mark, Novel Tees has been in business since 2013.  The goal was to create an innovative business where individuals could learn effective work ethics and job skills that can be applied to competitive employment opportunities. In addition to the acquisition of a wide range of job skills, the individuals also gain a feeling of self-fulfillment and purpose.  Every purchase made helps support their individuals working in Novel-Tees as well as On Your Mark as a whole.  “We knew it would be a perfect fit, but we had to be sure we made it worth their while,” said DeGrottole in response to On Your Mark’s eagerness to partner.  So, in exchange for taking on 8 additional employees, CR generously provided Novel Tees with equipment, inventory, supplies, and their client list.  “We wanted to help in any way we could.  On Your Mark is taking a risk adding 8 new employees so we are trying to make this transition easier for everyone.”

Upon absorbing the 8 new employees, On Your Mark made it a priority to meet each individual separately, asking about their past experiences at Special Tees and their vision and goals for their new place of employment.  Robert Dolcimascola had been working for Special Tees for 5 years.  When he found out the store was closing, he said “It was sad because I worked there for quite a long time.  I was disappointed.”  But when he found out his job would be salvaged, he stated “I felt good because we were going to a similar business, we were happy about that.  I am looking forward to working with different colleagues.”  Levo Freeman, the Graphic Designer at Special Tees had a similar reaction. “I was very confused because we were doing so well.  We got a lot of business back,” Said Freeman.  But unfortunately, that wasn’t enough to keep the business afloat.   He states “A week or 2 after we closed, they told us there’s another company who is like CR and Special Tees and they’re looking to hire people…I felt so relieved. [I’m] looking forward to using my skills as a graphic designer to not only help On Your Mark and Novel Tees, but customers who are looking for a shirt for your events and festivities! I’m happy to be here!” 

In just 6 weeks On Your Mark got these new employees up and running. “We are so thrilled to have these 8 incredible individuals join our Novel Tees crew.  They bring an added skill set to our business and we’re excited to expand with their help!” says Gori, manager of Novel Tees. “This was the reason Novel Tees was created.  To provide job opportunities for those that may need a little extra support.  We are proud to collaborate with CR.  We’re all out for the same cause!” 

So, with the holidays coming up, be sure to get all of your customized apparel from Novel Tees!  This business needs your support now more than ever.  Located at 130 Victory Boulevard, you’ll see Levo behind the desk and the rest of the Special Tees crew in the back, making those perfect tee-shirts that you know and love. Call (917) 831-4990 to place your order today!

Opening of Respite!

ON YOUR MARK, GET SET, GO!
Agency’s Respite Program is Back in Action

On Saturday, October 16th, On Your Mark reopened the doors to its beloved in-person Saturday Respite program! Under the new direction of Joelle Bilotti, Caitlin Gardner, and Jennifer Larsen, the staff welcomed over 50 individuals back to their South Shore location.

Jennifer Larsen, who began her career in the Respite department in 1998, currently supports all programs and departments in her role as Associate Executive Director. “We’ve been working hard to enhance our Respite program by developing a robust offering for so many families in need. It’s very exciting to reopen our doors slowly and safely, so that we can help our individuals get back to socializing with their friends!” Joelle Bilotti, previously On Your Mark’s Assistant Director of Day Habilitation, has been with the agency for over 10 years and has worked to open many of their renowned Community-Based Day Habilitation programs. “I am so excited to see all of our hard work come to fruition. We have virtual Zoom four times a week and I can see how eager all of the individuals are to get back in, see their friends, and to just have fun! I am lucky to be a part of such a caring and loyal organization.” Finally, Caitlin Gardner has been with the agency for over 15 years and has worked to support and create numerous programs at On Your Mark. She states that they are “happy to be back providing this much needed service to the individuals and their families once again.”

On Your Mark’s Respite program is well known for its diverse array of activities. From overnight trips to Camp Chen-A-Wanda, to day trips to see a Broadway show; there’s no uncharted waters for this program. Individuals are accustomed to pursuing all types of interests including yoga, sports, arts and crafts, and more! Long-time On your Mark individual, Ricky White expressed that he is “happy to go back to On Your Mark Respite program and see all my friends.” He enjoys “playing basketball with his best friend Joe, art class, cooking class, computers, fitness class, and weightlifting because [his] girlfriend likes [his] muscles!”
For those who are unfamiliar, Respite programs were originally designed to give an individual’s primary caretakers a break, sometimes in the form of overnight getaways, other times as recreational programs on nights and weekends. On Your Mark welcomes each opportunity to serve an individual and their family under any circumstances. Parents and caregivers rely on these types of programs to enhance the lives of their loved ones by providing them with services that promote independence. “The program is very good for the children. It gives the guys something to do and something to look forward to. The people who work for On Your Mark are such amazing and fantastic people. My daughter has attended their program for so many years, I can’t even remember. On Your Mark is her whole life!” says Carmine Amarando, parent of On Your Mark individual.

This program was a vital part of many individuals’ lives and the lapse in routine has severely impacted them. Kim White, parent of Ricky White, said that “due to COVID, the program has been closed. Ricky is so happy to be returning. He has really missed socializing with his peers and all of the fun activities that he would do while there. I look forward to having him get back into his normal routine and resuming a program that encourages his independence, activities, and social skills.”
The lapse in fully reopening On Your Mark’s Respite Program also disrupted the lives of many loyal staff members. They are looking forward to returning just as much as the individuals! Gina Savage, who has been employed with On Your Mark for over 10 years, is excited to get this program back up and running. “I have 9 years’ experience working for On Your Mark’s Respite Program, and I am so grateful to be involved again. Our individuals and staff have endured many changes and hardships during the pandemic but have stayed “On Your Mark Strong” and are looking forward to launching a great new season of Respite programming. I can’t wait to get started!”

The new Saturday program will run October 16, 2021 through June 25, 2022 at the South Shore JCC and will include lots of past activities, including some new ideas suggested by families and individuals! If you, or someone you know, is interested in On Your Mark’s services, (which include Community Habilitation, Employment Services, Day Habilitation, Residential and, of course, Respite) please reach out to their Intake and Entitlements Coordinator, Elizabeth Ciraola at 718-720-9233 ext. 5061 or eciraola@onyourmark.org. And, if you, or someone you know, is interested in applying for a position at On Your Mark please visit www.onyourmark.org/careers