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Donald Vitkus presented posthumously with Benjamin Ricci award

April 5, 2018 1 comment

Donald Vitkus, who survived a traumatic childhood at the former Belchertown State School and then went on to earn an associate’s degree and to become a direct caregiver, was posthumously presented with the 2018 Benjamin Ricci Commemorative Award late last month.

The presentation was made by Department of Developmental Services Commissioner Jane Ryder at a March 28 ceremony at the State House in Boston. The annual award celebration recognizes the accomplishments of individuals served by DDS, and the dedication of caregivers and advocates.

Ryder will attend Vitkus’s memorial service, which is planned for June 23 at the Warner Pine Grove Cemetery Belchertown, where many of the school’s former residents are buried.

Benjamin Ricci, who died in 2006, had been the lead plaintiff in Ricci v. Okin, the historic federal consent decree case in Massachusetts in the 1970s and 1980s, which resulted in major upgrades in care at Belchertown and other institutions for the developmentally disabled around the state.

Ben Don report card

Donald Vitkus (right) presents Ben Ricci with a copy of an actual report card that Vitkus received while he was a child at the Belchertown State School in the 1950s.

Vitkus died last January at the age of 74. His life at Belchertown and afterwards was chronicled in a 2016 book, You’ll Like it Here, by Ed Orzechowski, vice president of COFAR and a founding member of the Advocacy Network, an organization for persons with developmental disabilities and their families in western Massachusetts.

Orzechowski accepted the award on Vitkus’s behalf at the March 28 State House event.

Among those attending the event were Benjamin Ricci’s son, Bobby, who was a Belchertown resident, and Bobby’s brothers, Jim and Tom.

“Without Ben (Ricci) and the other original plaintiffs, ceremonies like this very likely would never have come to pass,” Orzechowski said following the award ceremony.

Orzechowski noted, in accepting the award for Vitkus, that he had originally met him in 2005, a year before Ricci’s death, at a book signing at Holyoke Community College for Ricci’s book, Crimes Against Humanity. The book chronicled the Ricci legal case and the conditions at Belchertown in the 1950s and 1960s.

Donald Vitkus award ceremony photo2018

Ed Orzechowski (center) holds a plaque commemorating Donald Vitkus’ posthumous receipt of the Banjamin Ricci award on March 28 at the State House. From left are DDS Commissioner Jane Ryder and Ricci’s sons,  Jim, Bobby, and Tom.

After Ricci’s presentation at the book signing, Vitkus approached Orzechowski, who had been assisting Ricci at the event, and asked if he would help him write his life story. At the time, Vitkus was a 62-year-old human services student at HCC, the oldest student enrolled at the school. Orzechowski said he later learned that it was Vitkus, as president of the college’s psychology club, who had invited Ricci to speak.

Orzechowski also recounted that Vitkus was a six-year-old foster child when he arrived at Belchertown in 1949, where he was labeled a “moron” in an age when “idiot,” “imbecile,” and “moron” were clinical terms.

While Vitkus was growing up at Belchertown, “he stood up not only for his own rights, but also for other residents who were being abused or neglected,” Orzechowski said. “This ‘moron’ earned his associate’s degree and became a uniquely qualified direct caregiver, one who knew what it was like to be treated as less than human. Donald wanted his story told, ‘… so people wouldn’t forget—so it wouldn’t happen again.’”

Orzechowski maintained that “despite the scars of his upbringing, Donald persevered.” After Belchertown, he was drafted into the United States Army and served in Viet Nam. He married, raised a family, and held a job in the printing industry for more than 30 years.

Orzechowski said Vitkus told him that, initially, he resented Ben Ricci and what was originally the Belchertown Friends Association because the precedent-setting lawsuit brought changes long after Vitkus had left the institution. But, said Orzechowski, Vitkus “harnessed that bitterness, eventually became vice president of Advocacy Network, and a passionate spokesperson for the rights and care of developmentally disabled individuals.”

In recent years, Vitkus said he wanted to be buried in the Belchertown State School cemetery that had been known to the residents of the facility as Turkey Hill. “I want to be with the others because those people are my brothers and sisters,” he said.

Orzechowski said that while at HCC, Vitkus shared his experiences with the much younger students, “who had little or no idea about what conditions in state institutions used to be like—the squalor, the beatings and molestation, the regimented, de-humanizing environment.”

Orzechowski noted that Vitkus spoke to high school students about self-advocacy and spoke to newly hired DDS employees at orientation sessions in Northampton, always introducing himself: “Hello, my name is Donald Vitkus. I’m a former retard of Belchertown State School.”

“These were heart-filled, gut wrenching talks, always with the dignity of the individual uppermost in Donald’s mind,” Orzechowski said. “It wasn’t unusual to see tears in the eyes of those who heard his story.” Vitkus also traveled to Washington, D.C., to speak at annual VOR conferences with attendees from across the country. He was a panelist in a discussion of “The R Word.” He visited Congressional offices to lobby for supportive legislation and funding.

After earning his degree, Vitkus worked for Sullivan Associates in Springfield, providing direct care. “He wanted to help individuals make their own decisions, learn how to handle money, how to cross the street, how to shop, how to behave in restaurants—practical day-to-day living skills,” Orzechowski said. “He never talked down to them. He always sat with them at mealtimes, and beside them in transportation vans. He was firm when he had to be, but always mindful of their dignity, always kind in his words.”

 Orzechowski said many of those who attended Vitkus’s book events had aunts, uncles, and cousins who also had been Belchertown patients. Others had worked or volunteered there.

At one bookstore, he said, “I watched an elderly woman seated in the crowd, trying to hold back tears. Donald liked to ask people what had brought them there, and when he asked this particular woman, she was so emotional that words wouldn’t come. The room was silent. Donald walked over and embraced her with an empathy that didn’t need words to convey—this from a man who had shunned physical contact because of the beatings and physical restraints he had endured in the institution. It was a powerful moment.”

On another occasion, according to Orzechowski, a mother brought her middle-school son who was afflicted with autism. “The boy locked onto Donald’s comments,” Orzechowski said.

The next day, the boy’s mother told Orzechowski that her son, who is ordinarily non-communicative, couldn’t stop talking about Vitkus in the car on their way home. He told his mother “that he wanted to grow up to be like Donald, to stand up for others with intellectual disabilities, that Donald was his inspiration.”

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Donald Vitkus, inspirational survivor of the Belchertown State School, dies at 74

January 26, 2018 9 comments

Donald Vitkus, a survivor of the former Belchertown State School, whose life became an inspiration to many in the disabled community, died Wednesday of complications from a brain tumor.

Vitkus was the subject of a book published in 2016 by Ed Orzechowski, vice president of COFAR and a founding member of the Advocacy Network, an organization for families and persons with developmental disabilities in western Massachusetts.

Orzechowski’s book, “You’ll like it here,” chronicled Vitkus’s childhood at Belchertown in the 1950s, and his life afterwards in which he dealt with lasting emotional effects of his experiences in the institution. After an initial failed marriage and a literal search with his son for his past among Belchertown records, he found his calling in recent years as an advocate for persons with developmental disabilities.

Vitkus’s wife, Patricia, said there will be a memorial service in Massachusetts at a later date.

Vitkus was sent by a foster family to Belchertown in 1949, when he was six years old.  He had a tested IQ of 41 and was labeled “a moron” in the state school records, according to Orzechowski’s book.  In fact, that assessment of Vitkus cognitive ability and similar assessments of many of his peers at Belchertown proved to be wrong. He and many of his fellow “inmates” had to use their wits to survive there.

Donald Vitkus photo4

Donald Vitkus speaking at a recent event in his role as an advocate for people with developmental disabilities

In his book, Orzechowski described how Vitkus first approached him in 2005 following a book signing for “Crimes Against Humanity,” a detailed account by the late Benjamin Ricci of conditions at Belchertown and the other institutions prior to the 1970s. Ricci launched the class action lawsuit, Ricci v. Okin, in that decade that resulted in major improvements  in the care and conditions in the facilities.

In a post yesterday on Facebook, Orzechowski said that when he first met Vitkus at that book signing, Vitkus was then a 62-year-old student at Holyoke Community College, earning a degree in human services.

Vitkus told Orzechowski that he had grown up at Belchertown and was looking for someone to help him write his story. “I had no idea how important this man would become in my life,” Orzechowski wrote yesterday. 

“You’ll like it here” describes what were at the time horrifying conditions at Belchertown, and the treatment of the residents as prison inmates who could be abused with impunity.

When Vitkus refused at one point to take antipsychotic medication that was then routinely given to everyone, an attendant tried to jam the pills down his throat.  Vitkus bit off the attendant’s finger and was placed in solitary confinement for 34 days as punishment.  He noted to Orzechowski that the medication was used to keep the residents docile.

Orzechowski also described how the introduction of a television set, donated by a parents’ group,  opened Vitkus’s mind to the outside world, but also raised troubling questions for him, particularly about things such as the civil rights struggles of the late 1950s. From the book:

“Why were colored people treated like that?” he wondered.  “Why was anyone treated like that? Why did places like Little Rock, Montgomery, and Belchertown exist? Where was justice?”

In 1960, Vitkus was “paroled” from Belchertown at the age of 17, after graduating from the sixth grade at the school. He was sent to a program run by the Catholic Church called Brightside. Later, he enlisted in the Army and was sent to Vietnam where he lost a buddy who was killed in a firefight.

After his return from Vietnam, Vitkus got married to a young woman whom he’d met while he was a resident at Brightside. He also took night classes at a local high school and received a high school diploma.

But while Vitkus and his wife had two children, he found that he was incapable of expressing affection for her or for his children.  Eventually, his wife filed for divorce.

Vitkus  later reconnected with his son, Dave, who became a police officer in Northampton, and the two of them went on an exhaustive hunt together for information about Vitkus’s past.  That search took them to Belchertown, which was then in the final process in the early 1990s of closing.

At the age of 52, Vitkus remarried, earned an associate degree in human services at Holyoke Community College, and began a new career in caregiving to people with developmental disabilities.

Orzechowski offered some remembrances of his experiences with Vitkus in just the past year during a series of book signing events in western Massachusetts. One of those events was at Whole Children, an agency established in Hadley by mothers of developmentally disabled kids.

As Orzechowski described it:

It was a terrible stormy night last January—i thought it might be cancelled—but a sizeable crowd still showed. I saw one woman in the audience sitting with her son, probably middle school age. She later told me that her son is seldom communicative, but on the way home in the car he couldn’t stop talking about Donald and that he wanted to grow up to be like him, speaking out and advocating.

 At another event at a bookstore in Westfield, Orzechowski said:
I had watched a woman in the audience, clearly moved. When Donald called for questions following our presentation, he asked, “What brought you here, ma’am?” — a question he often asked. The woman was so emotional she couldn’t speak. There was a long silence, and Donald went to her and embraced her. This from a man who at one time couldn’t stand to be hugged because it reminded him of abuse and restraints.
At a coffee shop:
Donald and I had dropped off some books to be sold at Gail’s (my wife) hairdresser’s shop. Donald and I went next door for coffee, and were at a table talking. A woman (Darlene) who had been sitting near us (she was wearing an apron, on break) said she couldn’t help overhearing, and introduced herself. She had also been a patient at Belchertown as a child. She and Donald started reminiscing, and I went out to my car to get a book to give to her. We continued talking after I gave her the book, and before she left I told her that there were several pictures in the back of the book. She was still standing at our table, and when she opened to those pages, her hands started to tremble. It was extremely moving.

In his Facebook post yesterday, Orzechowski described Vitkus as “a man of courage, justice, integrity, resiliency, humor, and humility. He was a remarkable advocate for the rights and care of people with mental disabilities.”

Orzechowski added that, “I am both privileged an honored to have shared his life story, and to have become a very close friend. We had quite a journey together.”