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.