Linda Sperber, who expanded services for Long Islanders with Down syndrome and other disabilities and became a mother-like figure to hundreds, has died. She was 66.
Sperber, director of adult services for the Nassau nonprofit ACDS Inc., died on May 17 of complications from pancreatic cancer at Mercy Medical Center in Rockville Centre, her family said.
During her more than 30 years at the agency, Sperber, of Freeport, founded a variety of programs for those 5 and older, including group homes for adults, “dayhab” to provide daytime activities for those with disabilities, and programs to help individuals coordinate services. She also created classes to teach kids with Down syndrome to ride bikes and dance ballet; began a weekly karaoke night; and started an upstate summer camp and a winter formal dance, the Snow Ball.
“She had an innate sense of the approach to take with each kid,” said Sheila McHale, mother of three daughters with Down syndrome who received services through ACDS. “She really had a knack for being able to see what each family and child needed and to incorporate that need.”
McHale said the group homes in particular were a saving grace.
“It took such a burden, such a worry away from us, knowing they’d be safe and cared for,” McHale said of her daughters.
Sperber would carefully choose Amish country decorations for each Nassau group home and frame pictures of the residents, her family said.
“It’s not a perfect world for them, but it’s close,” McHale said of the homes.
At home, Sperber integrated her life with her husband, Erich, and four children with her work. If a resident had a nightmare and needed to be comforted, there would be calls to the house at 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning, her family said. Sometimes it would be enough for Sperber to be on the phone. Other times she would go over in person.
“She was very much their mom, as she was ours, in many respects,” said her oldest daughter, Kristen Culjak, 42, of upstate Hurley.
Family participated in canoe races and took vacations with parents of children with Down syndrome. “There was no line between a personal thing and a work thing. She worked 24 hours a day,” said her youngest daughter, Lauren Stallone, 36, of Freeport. She also served as PTA president in the early 1980s and organized fundraisers for her children’s schools, including spaghetti dinners and supermarket bingo.
Jim McHale, who sits on the board of ACDS and is Sheila’s husband, said Sperber never coddled the children with disabilities — the kids learned to ride bikes without training wheels — but showed them respect and empathy. “She treated them exactly as we did. We all strived as parents to have some of Linda’s gifts.”
Jane McNulty, who worked closely with Sperber for the last 18 years, said the kids respected her back. “They knew if she said something, she meant it,” McNulty said.
Michael Smith, executive director of ACDS Inc., said she continued to work almost until the end.
“We’re not even trying to replace her. It’s almost too big a job for anyone else,” he said.
Born in Brooklyn, Sperber and her family moved to Rosedale, Queens, when she was about 10.
She received an undergraduate degree from Queens College and then a master’s from Adelphi University. She went to work as a public school teacher and then became a stay-at-home mom to her own four children.
A former teaching colleague had a child with Down syndrome and brought Sperber to ACDS.
She began teaching at the ACDS preschool in Plainview in 1984, when the organization served newborns to 5-year-olds with Down syndrome. She expanded programs for those older than 5. The nonprofit would eventually serve those with disabilities besides Down syndrome.
Sperber also is survived by sons, Erich, 39, of Naples, Florida, and Jason, 36, of Freeport, the twin brother of Stallone; brother, Jerry Pilc, and sister Jane McCormack, both of Valley Stream; and three grandchildren.
Services were held at Hungerford & Clarke Funeral Home in Freeport. She was buried at Calvary Cemetery in Woodside.
A scholarship fund was established in Sperber’s name. Donations can be made to ACDS 5Plus and mailed to ACDS, 4 Fern Place, Plainview, New York 11803.