Victoria Schneps is a dynamo of devotion and a catalyst for change for the needs of individuals with autism, developmental disabilities and special needs. For over a half century, Schneps has made it her life’s work to support Life’s WORC, an organization that she founded 50 years ago — and the tens of thousands of lives that they have positively impacted, cared for with dignity, and improved their quality of life.
For Schneps, her passion began with personal experience. Her daughter, Lara, suffered brain damage and seizures in her infancy. As a devoted parent, she first sought a cure for her daughter’s injuries, a search that later evolved into one for quality care. She located the Willowbrook State School on Staten Island, which was able to accept Lara in their Infant Rehabilitation Center.
It was Willowbrook that changed Schneps’ life, and it was Schneps who then changed the lives of countless individuals 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 foundational meeting hosted in Schneps’ living room, Life’s WORC — founded primarily with neighbors and friends with healthy children who wanted to help — sought to aid the facility.
“They all felt compelled to volunteer because they were blessed with healthy children, many saying, ‘There but for the grace of God, go I,’” says Schneps.
However, shortly thereafter, New York State instituted significant budget cuts to the programs for this vulnerable population. With new limitations of resources came drastic negative impacts to the quality of care. Seeing firsthand the deplorable conditions at Willowbrook, Schneps and the women of Life’s WORC turned from volunteers into picketers and protestors, to bring change.
“We started a women’s organization to help volunteer and raise money for Willowbrook,” Schneps recalls. “About a year after we started our efforts, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller slashed the budget. With these slashes came drastic changes in the quality of care. These people at Willowbrook were helpless, like my daughter. They were living in conditions that were unsuitable for anyone — especially those, like my daughter, who required around-the-clock care to be fed, to be diapered and bathed.”
The facility was forcing children and others into tragic conditions that were both unsanitary and inhumane. At the same time, a young journalist was made aware of the problems arising at Willowbrook, thanks to Schneps. That reporter was Geraldo Rivera, who set his sights on telling the stories of the families and individuals at the facility — an exposé that would shock the world.
“I connected with Geraldo Rivera and he was snuck into the facility by a doctor who worked there,” Schneps says. “People were actually dying and Geraldo recognized the sad and tragic conditions that myself and many like me were going through, as our