Sometimes, even a bright light shines through the darkness.
That’s certainly the case for Genevieve Benoit and Diane Buglioli, who worked through the horrors of the Willowbrook State School before taking steps to provide a better and more humane way to treat individuals with special needs.
The two women met in 1969 while working as recreational aides at the facility — which eventually closed in 1987 after abhorrent conditions and treatment toward the residents was exposed — and were determined to find a better solution.
“We had people who we worked with every day, and we saw there weren’t enough programs in the community for these individuals. We then thought maybe we could start a program,” said Benoit.
Buglioli recalled: “We were young and thought we could do anything. We formed such strong bonds with so many of the people we worked with there, and we said, ‘This is just not right’.”
In 1974, the New Dorp residents created A Very Special Place Inc. as a not-for-profit corporation to provide services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The women felt strongly about empowering these individuals, and proposed opening a center with modular programming for adults 18 and over. The center would create different stations and let them choose their desired recreational activity.
Today, this may seem like a simple concept, but Benoit and Buglioli encountered battles along the way. There were times police officers offered them escorts to and from the parking lot when they would attend forums and meetings to address the community about their proposal.
Some locals were vehemently against the idea. The women recalled one meeting when a resident screamed and asked them how they would like such a facility in their own neighborhood. Buglioli calmly responded that, since she lived around the corner from the proposed center, she was fine with it.
Benoit and Buglioli showed they would not be bullied, nor would they back down from detractors. The women tended to their dream by setting up day programs while wrestling with the state for years to open the center. That was no easy task since there was no such funding in place for this type of service, particularly for adults.
That all changed in 1980 when they received state funding to open their first center at 241 New Dorp Lane, serving between 13 and 15 individuals.
“We actually couldn’t believe that we accomplished this,” admitted Benoit, the organization’s executive director. “We stayed for hours late at night because we couldn’t afford a lot of staff, and we had to do all the jobs ourselves that you would normally see at a not-for-profit organization.”
Just as Benoit and Buglioli expected, the programs filled quickly, and the women realized there was little time to celebrate.
“You never really sat back and said, ‘Well, that was successful.’ You just kept looking toward the next thing. We would say, ‘This is good, but what else do they need?’” recalled Buglioli, the deputy executive director. “It seemed like we were always in process. There was always something else to do.”
By listening to parents’ feedback as a guide, A Very Special Place Inc. eventually expanded to serve 1,200 people over two centers, six residences, and five supportive apartments. These programs assist individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities to lead fuller lives and achieve independence through a network of adult day services, employment training, recreational and respite services, senior services, children’s services, and residential alternatives.
For their accomplishments, Benoit and Buglioli are being honored with a Louis R. Miller Business Leadership Award, which they will receive in the Not-For-Profit Businessperson category. The awards — which are presented by the Staten Island Chamber of Commerce and the Staten Island Advance — honor the memory of Louis R. Miller, a businessman and West Brighton resident who was also a community leader.
In addition to the services they provide, the mentorship that Benoit and Buglioli offer members and their families is immeasurable. The women are always willing to share their knowledge and expertise to give individuals the skills to navigate everyday life.
Harvest Café, a full-service daytime restaurant in New Dorp fully operated by A Very Special Place Inc, is a crowning example of their success. At the Café, which opened in 2011, restaurant staff unite with innovative educators and agency program participants. Program individuals gain firsthand experience in the food service industry by working in the Café, and learn new skills and tasks that include customer service, indoor and outdoor restaurant maintenance, food preparation and presentation, dishwashing, laundering, and other cleaning services.
These participants are not the only people who learn at A Very Special Place Inc., as Benoit and Buglioli demonstrate their leadership and knowledge by also mentoring their employees.
“It strengthens you always to be honorable,” added Benoit. “It strengthens you to feel this way and say, ‘If this was my child, what would I want?’”
“We tell our staff when a family member looks to you for help, and they’re telling you what they need, they’re trusting you with this information. They’re trusting you with the people they love. That is a gift to you,” said Buglioli.
Although more people are being diagnosed with intellectual and developmental disabilities, A Very Special Place Inc. still faces a constant struggle to maintain programs due to budget cuts. However, as long as Benoit and Buglioli see the necessity, they’ll be out there fighting for the special needs community.
Recipients of the Louis R. Miller Awards are recognized as effective business leaders, and for their outstanding contributions to the local community. Awards are given out in four categories: Emerging, Established, Master, and Not-For-Profit. The honorees will be recognized during the annual Louis R. Miller Business Leadership Awards Breakfast on Thursday, Feb. 13 at LiGreci’s Staaten. For tickets, visit www.sichamber.com or call the Chamber at 718-727-1900.
Below, Benoit and Buglioli share more about their goals, job, and life:
Current occupation and title: Executive director at A Very Special Place.
Some of my life goals include: To do something that will have a significant and positive impact.
The best part of my job: Seeing people enjoying the services and programs that we provide.
The most difficult part of my job: Having to turn someone away because there is no funding for the services that he or she needs.
My life philosophy: Never participate in anything that does not bring you satisfaction and joy.
I am most proud of: The staff and the board of A Very Special Place for their extraordinary dedication and caring.
Something that no one knows about me: I love music and sing loudly in the car and shower.
Personal interests and hobbies: Music, video/internet games, genealogy and reading.
I laugh at: Slapstick.
I am really good at: Focusing my energies on a given task or issue.
I admire: Anyone who stands up for what they believe in
Some important things I would like you to know about me: I’ve enjoyed every minute of this journey, and I feel blessed that I have shared it with so many good and generous people.
Current occupation and title: Deputy executive director in charge of the clinical and administrative services of the agency.
Hometown: New Dorp.
Some of my life goals include: Leave this planet better than I found it.
The best part of my job: Resolving something and then seeing an actual impact that improves someone’s situation.
The most difficult part of my job: Dealing with irrational rules/requirements which benefit no one but simply prevent benefit to anyone. Finding a positive path through that maze has been a constant challenge with both high rewards and satisfaction, as well as difficult bureaucratic detours that required renewed energy and focus.
My life philosophy: “Do no harm,” which is more easily said than accomplished. “It is what it is, but it will become what you make it.”
I am most proud of: The accomplishments of A Very Special Place, as well as those people who survived institutionalization to become caring human beings despite the injustice they endured.
The quality I like best about myself: Ability to find humor in most things, which makes life more tolerable and enjoyable.
Something that no one knows about me: I prefer to watch, observe and ponder rather than lead a discussion.
I am really good at: Public speaking, as I do not get nervous despite the size of the audience — and enjoy the opportunity.
Some important things I would like you to know about me: I recognize that I have had the honor to try to make an impact on people’s lives, and I am thankful that I was given the trust and opportunities to do so. I also remain forever indebted to my parents, Paul and Adelaide, who truly lived their lives devoted to family and being honorable people regardless of the challenges they encountered.