Tommy Stallone was only 4 years old when his parents enrolled him in the day program at Cerebral Palsy Association of Nassau County. That was 70 years ago.
Back then, the place was located in the basement of an American Legion Hall in Hempstead, and parents had to carry their kids downstairs to get there.
Now the agency has a sprawling complex in Roosevelt with a $50 million budget, a staff of 900 and services that help 1,500 children and adults a year.
“Very, very nice,” Stallone said about the place. “Everybody makes everybody happy.”
On Friday, Cerebral Palsy Association of Nassau County celebrates its 70th year, and the party will feature songs, speeches and presentations that show the difference that the place has made in people’s lives.
There’s a lot to celebrate. Stallone is among six people with disabilities who have relied on the agency’s services since it first opened. Back in 1948, people with disabilities had few options. There was no health insurance and little technology beyond the wheelchair, so the burden on parents could be overwhelming, said assistant executive director Karen Geller-Hittleman.
Having a place like this helped families feel less isolated and alienated from society, she added.
These days, the six adults are all in wheelchairs and they speak little, as the effects of aging have compounded their challenges. But they all shared their thoughts on the agency in a speech prepared by a staffer for Friday.
Jeannie Bilello, 71, had fond memories about her friend Maureen Carpenter, 70.
Maureen “used to help me when we were in the same room,” said Bilello in a speech she wrote, which will be read aloud by a staffer Friday. “We have been friends since then.”
When the agency moved into its own building in 1952, it had five classrooms and a nurse’s office hardly bigger than a walk-in closet. Now there are 22 classrooms and 13 nurses. Over the years, the center, which is primarily funded by the state, has come to serve people with a range of disabilities.
Laura Hecht enrolled her son Daniel into the agency’s day program 39 years ago, when he was just 4 years old. Daniel has a drug-resistant seizure disorder.
Here, Daniel learned to eat his own meals. He has friends he knows by name, and he can stand with assistance, she said. Every morning, he is eager to get to the center.
The advances in treatment and technology have been vast over the years. Just look inside the children’s physical therapy gym.
Makayla Germain is celebrating her 8th birthday. She’s wearing a paper crown on her head and a big smile on her face. She moves along with the help of a device that provides just enough support to help her walk.
Walking would mean a world of independence.
“It opens up choices for her,” said Symong Choi, senior physical therapist.
Across the room, Josiah Barlow, 6, is having a ball playing basketball with the little plastic hoop. He wheels himself around in a device that looks much like a wheelchair but allows him to stand up.
Josiah likes to block the shots of his instructor, sometimes calling out, “This is my house.”
He’s learning to put weight on his legs, a skill that could allow him, with the help of the device, go up to a sink and wash his own hands as well as other skills.
Over the course of his seven decades with the center, Tommy Stallone learned social skills that allowed him to go out to restaurants, movies and malls, according to the agency. He walked around with help. As he has aged, he can no longer stand up or get around like he used to.
He now lives in one of the agency’s residential homes in Roosevelt, one of 18 in Nassau County.