The Willowbrook Mile project was initiated by the Staten Island Developmental Disabilities Council, the primary advocacy consortium for families and service providers for people with developmental disabilities on Staten Island. Working collaboratively with the College of Staten Island, the Institute for Basic Research in Developmental Disabilities, and the Elizabeth Connelly Resource Center/Office for People With Developmental Disabilities, the concept was formulated for a walking trail through the three distinct campuses which were created from the original 383 pastoral acres that was once Willowbrook State School.
The shared vision for the former Willowbrook State School property is to create a pathway for everyone to share the history of the property that would be accomplished in an inclusive, productive, progressive, and creative manner within a community partnership. The Willowbrook Mile project aims to preserve the site’s history and create a visionary presence that acknowledges the deinstitutionalization movement to empty large ineffective institutions as well as the crucial initiation of sustained rights for people with disabilities.
In the early 1970’s, Willowbrook burst onto the national scene following a series of articles published by the Staten Island Advance detailing the deplorable conditions that Sen. Robert Kennedy compared to a “snake pit” following his 1965 visit to the institution.
Following the Geraldo Rivera, Eyewitness News expose, residents and their families joined civil libertarians and mental health advocates in a lawsuit against the state “to prevent further deterioration and to establish that residents had a constitutional right to treatment,” according to The New York Times. In April 1975, the Willowbrook Consent Judgment was signed, and it has been used since as a model throughout the United States and in many parts of the world. This decree became a reality thanks to the commitment of families, advocates, numerous local and governmental agencies, community activists, and public officials and the recognition by the Staten Island community that all citizens are protected from harm under the 8th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution of the United States.
The closing of Willowbrook State School in 1987 ushered in a new era for the way disabled people are treated, as they transitioned from isolation and institutionalization to integration into community residences across the State. New methodologies for addressing the needs of people with disabilities have been embraced locally, regionally, and nationally, sparked by the events that took place on and because of Willowbrook.
The Willowbrook Mile uniquely creates an educational and fitness walking trail that connects the three neighboring properties. Reflection stations will be erected at sites along the pathway. The outdoor kiosks will be equipped with QAR scan code capability and contain audio, visual, and braille signage components. At each station, visitors will be able to experience a particularly significant milestone in the history of the Willowbrook property. Some of the most notable sites include:
the Memorial Garden Plaque recognizing the closing of Willowbrook and New York State’s commitment to citizens with developmental disabilities;
Building # 29, which housed more than 100 residents whose families had originally lived on Staten Island;
the Willowbrook Archives & Special Collections sponsored by the College of Staten Island, which focuses on gathering documents that capture the experiences of Willowbrook residents, their guardians, and Willowbrook staff members at all levels with both primary and secondary materials that record the administrative history of the school;
the Institute for Basic Research in Developmental Disabilities , opened in 1968 as the first large-scale institute in the world with a specific mandate to conduct basic and clinical research into the causes, treatment, and prevention of developmental disabilities; and,
the Elizabeth A. Connelly Center Therapeutic Pool, which commemorates the Assemblywoman’s advocacy for people with disabilities. Her efforts will forever remain the benchmark for a committed political activist. The station will enumerate the breadth of present-day opportunities which signify the focus of creating and sustaining community-based lives for people with disabilities.
The Willowbrook Mile will unite with the CSI fitness path and eventually expand to include other existing Island trails, emblematic of our interconnectedness and ever soaring human spirit to connect and thrive.