Marine Park

Hole in one: Guild golf outing a huge success

June 14, 2023 Helen Klein
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MARINE PARK – When supporters of the Guild for Exceptional Children took to the links on Friday, June 9, they were there not simply to enjoy a round of golf but to help out an organization that, over its 65-year history, has been a foundational supporter for developmentally disabled people.

The event, the 13th of its kind, was held at the Marine Park Golf Course.

Joe Riley addressed the group.

Joe Riley, the Guild’s executive director, spoke with the Eagle about the golf outing as well as about the Guild’s history and impact on the lives of its clients.

He stressed that thanks to supporters who sponsor various aspects of the outing – from lunch to the photo booth to dinner after golfing has finished for the day – more of the money that is raised from the event can go directly to Guild necessities.

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Those supporters, said Anthony Cetta, the president of the Guild’s Board of Directors, are hugely important to the Guild’s success.

“For us, it’s not one and done,” he said. “We’ve developed a community of supportive individuals.” They are key to the Guild’s achievements, Cetta added, because, he stressed, “Public funding only meets the barest needs.”

The Guild was founded in 1958 by a group of parents who wanted to provide for their developmentally disabled children. “They wanted something better than what was offered at the time,” explained Riley, who started his career with the organization as a direct support professional 37 years ago. “Back then, after they aged out of public school, there were no services available to them.”

John Abi-Habib, Stephen Fabrizio, Vito D’Emelio, Ralph Succar and Tony Msallem.

So, the parents, he said, started a “little day program” in which participants learned life skills that would enable them to be more independent.

The “most important” part of what the Guild does, Riley said, is “protecting people’s dignity, challenging them to be as independent as they can be, and providing inclusionary services so they feel part of the community.”

Cetta agreed. Cetta – who has been involved with the organization for the past 20 years, beginning after his son, as he said, “’Graduated’ from public school and moved to the Guild programs” – told the Eagle, “What sets the Guild apart is the compassion and love exhibited for the people under their care.”

A key, Cetta stressed, is the Guild’s ability to differentiate between the varied needs. “There are profoundly disabled people and those who have a disability that allows them to work and use public transportation,” he said. “The Guild does recognize the abilities and also the disabilities of each individual, and truly tries to address the needs of each individual.”

The Guild’s services have evolved.

Marguerite Colantoni, Paul Wyzsinski, Joe Riley, Mike Giordano, Stephen Fabrizio, Anthony Cetta and Caroline Mansuetto

In its earliest incarnation, Riley said, the program – one of the first of its kind – was “largely volunteer.” Over the years, the Guild expanded, in 1970 opening what was the first residential program in Brooklyn, the Conklin Residence.

The ability to provide 24-hour care outside an institution was a game-changer, stressed Riley. Before that, he said, “Parents had to choose between taking care of their children for the rest of their lives [and then hoping they could find someone who would continue that care] or placing them in institutions,” which, he stressed, “were terrible.”

Having residences within local neighborhoods, Riley pointed out, means that the residents become an important part of the community. And, indeed, over the decades of the Guild’s existence, they have been precisely that, instead of being “sequestered” within an impersonal institution.

Joe Riley, Allan Greenberg and Marion Cleaver.

Approximately 500 people in all are served by the Guild, according to Riley. About 125 of them are housed in 13 residences and two supportive apartments, which are overwhelmingly located in Bay Ridge. In addition, five-day programs offered by the Guild (three in Bay Ridge, one in Dyker Heights and one in Marine Park) serve approximately 200 people, with another 150 children enrolled in a preschool that the Guild runs in Boro Park.

Taylor and Elena Donohue show off a gift certificate.

That school, Riley added, offers occupational, physical and speech therapists, as well as trilingual staff who between them speak English, Chinese and Spanish, to accommodate student needs. The school plays an important role in educating special needs children in such a way that, in many cases, they can go on to “a regular school setting by age five,” he said.

“We’ve been very successful,” Riley added. “Many kids progress to less restrictive settings.”

A case in point was a student who had started at the school who came back to speak at graduation a couple of years ago. “He graduated from our program at age five,” Riley recalled. “And he had just graduated from Xaverian, and he wanted to give something back.”

The Covid pandemic had a real impact on the Guild’s services.

“Covid really impeded our ability to help higher-functioning individuals,” noted Cetta, who told the Eagle that, currently, the Guild is “in a rebuilding phase, post-Covid.”

In addition, events were curtailed because of the pandemic, said Riley, who noted, “Covid kind of shut everybody down for a while.”

He pointed out that many of the Guild’s clients “are vulnerable, not only developmentally disabled but they have health issues. Covid was a really dangerous time for them.

“We had really been dying to get back out in the community,” Riley added. While, he said, there had been concern that the golf outing would have to be canceled because of the bad air conditions caused by Canadian forest fires, fortunately, the skies had cleared by golf day.

“We really had a beautiful day, and everyone really had a great time,” Riley said.

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