Victoria Schneps is a dynamo of devotion and a catalyst for changing the needs of people with autism, developmental disabilities, and special needs. For more than half a century, Schneps has made it his life’s work to support Life’s WORC, an organization he founded 50 years ago, and the tens of thousands of lives he has positively impacted, served with dignity and improved quality of life. . life.
For Schneps, his passion began with personal experience. Her daughter, Lara, suffered brain damage and seizures in her childhood. As a devoted mother, she first sought a cure for her daughter’s injuries, a search that later evolved into quality care. She located Willowbrook State School on Staten Island, which was able to accept Lara into her Children’s Rehabilitation Center.
It was Willowbrook who changed Schneps’ life, and it was Schneps who later changed the lives of countless people with special needs. Schneps, at the time a public school teacher in New York City, started Life’s WORC, an acronym for Women’s Organization for Retarded Children, as an advocacy, fundraising, and volunteer organization. With the organization’s founding meeting hosted in Schneps’ living room, Life’s WORC, founded primarily with neighbors and friends with healthy children who wanted to help, sought to help the facility.
“Everyone felt compelled to volunteer because they were blessed with healthy children, many said, ‘There, but by the grace of God, I’m going,’” says Schneps.
Shortly thereafter, however, New York State instituted significant budget cuts to programs for this vulnerable population. With the new resource constraints came drastic negative impacts on the quality of care. Seeing firsthand the deplorable conditions in Willowbrook, Schneps and the women of Life’s WORC went from volunteers to picketers and protesters, to bring about change.
“We started a women’s organization to help volunteer and raise funds for Willowbrook,” Schneps recalls. “About a year after we began our efforts, Governor Nelson Rockefeller cut the budget. With these cuts came drastic changes in the quality of care. These people in Willowbrook were helpless, like my daughter. They lived in conditions that were not suitable for anyone, especially those, like my daughter, who required 24-hour care for feeding, diapering and bathing.”
The facility was forcing children and others to live in tragic conditions that were unsanitary and inhumane. At the same time, a young journalist learned of the problems arising in Willowbrook, thanks to Schneps. That reporter was Geraldo Rivera, who set his sights on telling the stories of families and individuals at the facility, an exposure that would shock the world.
“I connected with Geraldo Rivera and a doctor who worked there sneaked him into the facility,” says Schneps. “People were actually dying and Geraldo recognized the sad and tragic conditions that I and many like me were going through, as our family members were defenseless. Geraldo’s recognition of the importance of this story is why he is forever linked to our movement, our advocacy and he is a true advocate for the needs of this community.”
Meanwhile, Schneps’ husband, an attorney, encouraged the Willowbrook families to file a class action lawsuit against the facility, in concert with the American Civil Liberties Union. This legal effort was successful, bringing long-awaited justice to those involved.
“There was the hostility that we faced, but luckily, the Willowbrook PTA won the lawsuit,” says Schneps.
The shutdown brought awareness and sunlight to a system that desperately needed it. And, with the innovation of trained care professionals and Schneps’ leadership on the issue, Life’s WORC opened the state’s first group home for children with special needs in Little Neck, Queens, with half the residents hailing from Willowbrook and other of the community of Queens. This facility would soon become a model used throughout the state for the proper and humane care of this vulnerable population.
“After the lawsuit, it paved the way for new laws on the books to allow for a new concept, adopted by care providers for this vulnerable community, known as group homes,” says Schneps. “We laid the foundations to revolutionize the industry, providing decent care to these people, while leaving large-scale theaters in the past. What this did was allow group home settings to become lifetime homes for people with special needs, with partners and friends, activities and recreation. When we bought the first group home, there was resistance in the community and we won the case in the Queens Supreme Court which ruled that group residences have a right to be in residential neighborhoods R1 and R2.”
The state now funds group home settings, where qualified and certified caregivers with experience, knowledge, education and training contribute to a model of care focused on independence and quality of life.
“Our biggest challenge, industry-wide, is to continue to fight for New York State to properly staff and fund group homes,” Schneps says of where the promotion has had the most impact lately. “Many people in our community engage in intense personal care, which is costly, but critical. Group residences provide a warm home, where people can take pride in the progress they make every day and expand their personal horizons.”
While his involvement may have started 50 years ago, advocacy continues for Schneps, whose life has been dedicated to supporting Life’s WORC. In recognition of his efforts, Life’s WORC will honor Schneps at its 50th anniversary celebration gala scheduled for April 1, along with Geraldo Rivera. The star-studded, sold-out gala is scheduled to take place at the Garden City Hotel.
Funding has poured in from many of New York’s most notables, including but not limited to a $50,000 donation from honoree Rivera and his current and former Fox News Channel colleagues. Prominent news anchor Sean Hannity donated $50,000, as did former anchor Bill O’Reilly. Several other Long Islanders and New Yorkers have opened their wallets and hearts to contribute to a cause that continues to thrive after five decades of changing lives for the better. Also contributing top donations are the Koufakis family, the Rogan family, Subaru of America, and the Manes Peace Prize Foundation.
“Life’s WORC has literally become my life’s work,” says Schneps, “keeping atrocities like Willowbrook from happening again. Vigilance is needed, the commitment of an entire community is needed, and the generosity of those who are willing to support our cause is needed. The support that Life’s WORC has received for our 50th anniversary gala is more than overwhelming and humbling, but a statement that we remember Willowbrook and care that this will never happen again.
“This 50th Anniversary Gala is really a celebration of people living with dignity in this vulnerable community, compared to what has happened in the past,” he continues. “It is a celebration of a new chapter that began with the bravery and courage of a few, and the dedication of many more to make sure that what happened in the past is never forgotten.”
Schneps says that Life’s WORC now operates 50 group residences, day programs and family centers for people with autism, and will soon open a job training employment center.
“The Family Center for Autism in Garden City offers art classes, music classes, cooking classes, anything that builds life skills in people,” adds Schneps. “In our family centers, we are helping not only people with autism and special needs, but also their families, with counseling and other resources.”
Schneps is now a community newspaper publisher, owning and operating 88 newspapers in the New York metropolitan area, with her son, Josh Schneps. That started in 1985 with her flagship publication. The messenger of the queensbut now includes items like amNew York Subway, the long island press and Dan’s papersserving New York City, Long Island, Westchester and Rockland Counties, Philadelphia and Palm Beach County.
Schneps says his inspiration for joining the media was Geraldo’s reporting nearly five decades ago, which gave voice to the voiceless and taught him the power of the press to bring about change.
“I found a purpose in publishing,” says Schneps. “Our publications are the beacons of reporting through which New Yorkers and people around the world gather information and make informed decisions, find opinions and are inspired to act.
“While I see this as my job, my love and devotion is, and always will be, helping people with developmental disabilities and autism overcome challenges and live full lives.” “That is my mission, and I am proud of everyone who works with me to achieve this goal.”
For more information, visit lifesworc.org.