by Todd Shapiro for Dan’s Papers
JoAnn Vitale had been working in her new position managing community services in Jamesport for RISE Life Services for a short time. It would be a temporary job as she settled on Long Island after moving from New York City, with the goal of returning to her roots in the difficult world of mental health care.
Among the residents in the home was Mary. In her 30s at the time, Mary did not have any real connection to family. Mary was not very verbal or social with other residents. Vitale did her best to forge a relationship with Mary and experienced some small success, with Mary speaking a few words to her from time to time. Vitale felt she had learned about Mary.
But there was so much more to know.
As Vitale was working one day, Mary picked up a copy of The New York Times and, to the astonishment of Vitale and every other person working at the home, she began to read the paper aloud.
JoAnn Vitale Looks Back at Time with RISE Life Services
“Nobody knew she could read,” says Vitale. “I still don’t know how she learned. It was an incredible moment and I immediately recognized that people with disabilities always have other abilities. It is a matter of giving them the opportunities to grow.”
That was in 1988. Vitale is still working with RISE Life Services and Mary is still in her life.
“I fell in love with the individuals, and I have learned so much from them,” says Vitale.
RISE is a Riverhead-based nonprofit organization that was established in 1980 as Aid to the Developmentally Disabled (ADD) by family members who were concerned about the physical and emotional decline of patients compelled to live in crowded institutions.
These family members believed that appropriate treatment and training in a warm, sheltered, homelike environment would enhance their physical and emotional growth. With the support, funding and licensing of New York State’s Office of People with Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD) and the Office of Mental Health (OMH), ADD came to life.
In 2018, ADD was rebranded as RISE Life Services to better reflect the scope and mission of the services the organization now provides. Today RISE operates 32 homes and four programs.
Vitale has been a pioneer in creating one of the most evolved community programs on Long Island. She began her career in 1975 at North Shore Hospital in Manhasset as the recreational therapist in the in-patient psychiatric unit.
In 1988, state and federal funding was disappearing across the country. State institutions were being closed and individuals with disabilities were sent home. Parents found agencies like RISE Life Services to take care of their loved ones.
“Individuals with disabilities are so genuine. They just want to have friends, to be with other people,” Vitale says. “They are so pure. They care about other people. They face challenges every day, and we help them just do their best.”
Among the initiatives Vitale implemented was exposing the residents to the world through field trips and other activities.
“Most had never gone out into the community or had never eaten at restaurants, and we introduced that lifestyle at RISE,” she says. “Individuals in the residences are introduced to the community, to baseball games, Radio City Music Hall, plays and local restaurants to help the individuals be a part of the society most of us take for granted.”
In 2015, Vitale created RISE’s community food pantry with Island Harvest. This gave residents the opportunity to work at the food pantry and learn job skills. As RISE Life Services grew, so did Vitale’s ideas on how to make life better for individuals with physical and developmental disabilities.
Executive Director Charles Evdos joined RISE Life Services in 2017 and saw the potential in the recreation part of the agency and, after approaching Vitale with the idea to create a day program for individuals with disabilities, the well-known Program Without Walls at RISE was created.
“Individuals living with disabilities need to be challenged to grow and succeed, and that is what we do in our programs,” Vitale says. “Our programs are different than many others, and that is why people seek out RISE.”
In 2022, RISE Life Services partnered with the Spirit of Huntington to create another Without Walls program.
RISE also provides mental health care and, as the need for better care increases, has even begun a critically important teen suicide prevention program.
Vitale believes that her industry has come a long way since her earliest days, “but we still have a long way to go. People with disabilities need opportunities. Their population has a 90% unemployment rate. They need more support than others, and services are difficult to come by.”
Mary continues to read and for years will occasionally read to the people in her home. She is still very selective in whom she speaks with, but Vitale is still one of the people who Mary will speak with, especially these days. Mary’s day program was eliminated during the pandemic and when the programs began again, she ended up in Riverhead — with Vitale.
Vitale says plenty of families still need help but do not know how to seek out assistance. “Early intervention is so important. The earlier care can be introduced, the better it can be for individuals with disabilities,” she says.
Above all, Vitale has a message for families who are facing uncertainty: “Don’t ever underestimate what your child can do. Give them the chance to grow and learn. Give them the opportunities they deserve.”
Mary’s real name has not been used to protect her privacy.
To contact RISE Life Services, call 631-727-6220 or visit lifeservices.org.