Home > Uncategorized > Donald Vitkus presented posthumously with Benjamin Ricci award

Donald Vitkus presented posthumously with Benjamin Ricci award

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.”

  1. Thomas J. Frain
    April 5, 2018 at 2:28 pm

    This is a beautiful and heart wrenching post. Thank you Dave. And thank you Ed for helping Mr. Vitkus tell his truly remarkable and heartbreaking story. He was right: if we don’t keep speaking out – truth to power – days like he endured will return for all of our loved ones.

    Rest in Peace Donald Vitkus.

    Tom Frain


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