Home > Uncategorized > Ed Orzechowski receives the Ricci award and calls for memorial to residents of former Belchertown State School

Ed Orzechowski receives the Ricci award and calls for memorial to residents of former Belchertown State School

Ed Orzechowski, a former COFAR vice president, accepted the 2019 Dr. Benjamin Ricci Commemorative Award on Wednesday, and called for the establishment of a “lasting memorial” at the  former Belchertown State School.

The annual Ricci award celebration recognizes the accomplishments of individuals served by the Department of Developmental Services, and the dedication of caregivers and advocates.

“I urge the Department of Developmental Services, the Legislature and local officials to create a lasting respectful memorial, a tangible commemoration to all the living and deceased former residents of Belchertown and the other institutions,” Orzechowski said in accepting the award. “What they (the Belchertown residents) experienced, what they endured, must not be forgotten.”

Ed O. photo Ricci award1

Ed Orzechowski accepts the Benjamin Ricci award at the State House on Wednesday. At left is Orzechowski’s wife, Gail, who has worked with Ed in advocating for residents of DDS facilities.

Orzechowski authored “You’ll Like it Here,” a gripping book published in 2016 about the life of Donald Vitkus, a one-time resident of the former Belchertown State School.

Orzechowski’s book chronicled Vitkus’s childhood in the 1950s at Belchertown, which was then notorious for its inhumane and unsanitary conditions. The book also described Vitkus’s battle throughout the rest of his life to come to terms with his past at Belchertown.

In addition to serving for many years on COFAR’s Board, Orzechowski was president of the Advocacy Network, a former advocacy organization for the developmentally disabled in western Massachusetts.

In Wednesday’s State House ceremony, DDS Commissioner Jane Ryder presented the Ricci award to Orzechowski.  The award is named for Ben Ricci, the original plaintiff in the 1970s landmark federal class action lawsuit, Ricci v. Okin, that brought about upgrades in care for residents of Belchertown and other Massachusetts facilities for the developmentally disabled.

During the Wednesday ceremony, Orzechowski noted the importance of the efforts of three key individuals in the Ricci case, including Ricci himself, the late U.S. District Court Judge Joseph L. Tauro, who oversaw the class action lawsuit, and Beryl Cohen, the attorney for the plaintiffs. “Without the convergence of these three men, conditions for people who were called retarded—clinically labeled idiots, imbeciles, and morons—would not have improved the way they did,” he said.

Orzechowski also talked about his friendship with Vitkus, who died in January 2018 and was buried as was his wish in the Warner Pine Grove Memorial Cemetery for residents’ at Belchertown. In the course of writing the book, Orzechowski and Vitkus had become close; and a year ago, when Vitkus himself was selected to receive the Ricci award posthumously, Orzechowski was on hand at the State House to accept it on Vitkus’s behalf.

During Wednesday’s ceremony, Orzechowski also thanked his wife, Gail, for her advocacy efforts on behalf of her sister, Carol, who was a Belchertown resident during the period of abuse and neglect.

“I know Carol would thank you Gail, if she could,” Orzechowski said. “You are the one who has fought so hard for Carol and the human rights of so many others. You and the other family members and caregivers here have spoken up for your loved ones, and fought for the necessary funding to sustain their care. I only wrote a book. You live it every day. You deserve applause.”

Gail Orzechowski joined Ed at the podium at that point.

In discussing his call for a memorial at the Belchertown School, Orzechowski noted that he recently visited the grounds of the school, which was closed 26 years ago, and found the place to be “barely recognizable.” The town, he said, has built a new police station there, and there is now a modern continuing care facility on the site.

There are aso plans to construct a substantial brewery on the grounds. All that remains of the state school, he said, is the crumbling administration building and a few former residence halls.

Orzechowski said that while he has heard of plans for a walking trail with plaques to be a remembrance, he felt there needs to be something more substantial. He called for a museum on the grounds and for a memorial, a place for archives, and photos and exhibits.

“Many of us worked hard to close the institutions… the redevelopment of those properties is to be expected…and there’s much to be celebrated in the improved lives of our citizens with developmental disabilities,” Orzechowski said. He added that, “Today Wrentham and Hogan provide much-needed services for their residents, and community settings are much more homelike.”

At the same time, Orzechowski said, “there’s an irony here. What happened in the twentieth century at Belchertown, what happened at Monson, Dever, Glavin, Wrentham and Fernald—eugenics, radiation experimentation, day-to-day abuse and neglect—cannot be erased and should not be forgotten.” He added that existing archives involving residents of the state school are scattered and disorganized.

Orzechowski is currently at work on a second book about another Belchertown state school resident named Darlene. He said that when he told her about what is left of the institution, she said, “It’ll be like we were never there, like we never existed.”

 

 

 

  1. Barb Govoni
    March 23, 2019 at 6:18 am

    Most definitely, CONGRATULATIONS!

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