A Willowbrook heroine

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. ”

Margaret Mead

I would guess that Barbara Blum, who was New York State’s social services commissioner from 1977 to 1982, would not consider herself to be one of the thoughtful, committed citizens that Margaret Mead spoke of.  But many others would.

Mrs. Blum, who died Saturday in Albany, N.Y., was a heroine in her own time and she changed hundreds of lives for the better. In the 1970s, she was given the task of finding homes for more than 1,000 residents of the infamous Willowbrook State School on Staten Island.

An infamous snake pit

The school, which was home to 6,000 people with intellectual disabilities, had been described as a “snake pit” by New York Sen. Robert Kennedy after he toured the facility in 1965. Residents were locked in wards, some of them naked and lying in their own waste, with minimal assistance and supervision.  Kennedy said animals in zoos had better living conditions. Willowbrook was nothing better than a human warehouse.

Kennedy’s statements created an uproar, but nothing changed until 1972, when New York City TV reporter Geraldo Rivera managed to get inside Willowbrook and film the deplorable conditions. The resulting public outcry forced the closure of the institution. When it came time to find homes for the thousands of displaced residents, several people turned down the job of leading the effort.

She did the impossible

After various social services organizations pronounced the task impossible and refused to help, Mrs. Blum worked with the Catholic and black community groups to find homes. Her efforts ultimately were successful, but she was met with fierce neighborhood opposition. She was pelted with eggs and her nose was broken.

As is so often the case, people do great things because of some personal heartbreak. For Mrs. Blum, her thoughtfulness and commitment were steeped in the reality that her son was born with autism.

Mrs. Blum’s death was reported in the New York Times. I will add her to the growing list of people I wish I had known.