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45 Years of Service: Peggy Limongelli shares memories that mattered

45 Years of Service: Peggy Limongelli shares memories that mattered

Categories: Blog

For 45 years, Peggy Limongelli brought all of her talents to AHRC Nassau, from management of hundreds of employees to soap-making. Starting as a special education teacher and retiring as an assistant director of day program, Peggy’s focus has been not on “leading a horse to water” but “salting the oats to make the horse want to drink the water” — creating opportunities that inspire people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families to experience the world more fully. Below Peggy shares her memories of the agency and what has kept her motivated.

Start Date: Sept. 7, 1973 at the Silver School as a Certified Special Education Teacher.

Peggy’s Philosophy: In my thirties, I came across a song, actually an older hymn, “his eye is on the sparrow,” and the next line is “and I know he watches me.” That hymn resonated incredibly with me. The basis of my career pretty much has been on the sparrow, each and every one of them.

Peggy’s Work Inspiration: One of the best quotes, I was taught by a former AHRC consultant was “an institution is a state of mind.” It’s not just bricks and mortar. My cousin, Eugene, had Down syndrome. I would only get to meet him two Sundays a month, when I was a little girl. I thought he lived in this castle where he went to live and learn. He would come home for weekends from the castle, drowsy and nonspeaking. Looking back, I see he was heavily medicated because by Sunday he could speak. My father welcomed him; he wanted everyone to feel that this boy was loved. To us, he was another kid. I just remember looking at my dad from so early on and seeing his relationship with Eugene, so kind, so loving, so accepting. My sister said she never saw my father take a drink except for the days he went to where Eugene lived in the castle. Fast-forward to high school, and I’m applying for where to go to college. I wanted to go into what I thought was special ed. We would always eat as a family and my dad always had the TV on. On evening, there was the program with Geraldo at Willowbrook and my father gasped  — “That’s where Eugene is.” He would not see that when he went to visit. So, we’re at the dinner table, and that solidified my career right there. Eugene was part of the first group of people mandated to be removed from Willowbrook, and into the first Group Home on Long Island, with Suffolk AHRC.

Silver School Memory: Our direct support professionals and people who offer hands-on direct care are the most important people in our agency. Their insights and understanding of the children and adults we support are invaluable. We’re all here to give a voice to people who may not be able to speak for themselves, and the first line of people who help, support, teach and empower them are our direct support staff.  It reminds me of the 1970s, starting work as a teacher. I remember one of my students, Poogie, a nonverbal, but very feisty, 8 year-old in a wheel chair. Poogie was on a bus traveling home from the Silver School, at that time, which was broadsided and flipped over. They tried to extricate her. On the scene, the question of “is she verbal or nonverbal because of the accident?” arose. The parents in the emergency room had to describe her disabilities in depth because there was a lack of understanding about her range of abilities. Poogie ended up with a broken leg and was in the hospital for about a week. Her mom was telling me, that for weeks afterwards, as she was recuperating at home, Poogie wouldn’t stop crying – and it was six weeks after the accident. She was crying at night and trying to stand up in her crib, with a cast on her leg. The doctors said the glass was just working its way out of her head and that was probably what was hurting her, in addition to her head injury and broken leg. Ten weeks later, Poogie’s back in school. She’s not herself. On the first day, she goes down to the physical therapist, he’s working with her, and I get a phone call. He says there’s something wrong with the leg without a cast. We call the parents, another x-ray is done. Long story short: they put the cast on the wrong leg.  This solidified the role I played, as a young woman. It was not me that was called to the ER that night, it was that I represented AHRC, the hope, the solution, the partner in the care of her child. From then on, I realized that we, as staff had a duty and obligation to be the people that parents could lean on, could trust, and could depend upon, in good times and bad.

 Day Program Memory: In the late ‘80s, the Cissy Birnbaum building was built to be a day program and supported the first class of people who were coming out of the institutions. It was the result of NY State drafting the Willowbrook decree that all people need to be placed in group homes and day programs. The mansion was a day program, but look at where we were – with the long-winding staircase. It was one of the best options available at the time.  One thing I claim, if you walk from the mansion from the front door to the Silver School past the pool. There are two railings on the side of the cement steps that I fought tooth and nail for my director to get.  Because I worked “hands on” with my group in the mansion, I realized the physical difficulties and barriers that even our own agency needed to accommodate to assist those with needed supports.

The Future: It’s all about the team. One day I brought in a meat grinder for my in-service (with staff), one portion I filled with Mazola oil, the other I filled with sand. Of course, the Mazola went smoothly while the sand wouldn’t move. I asked the team, “Do you want to grease the wheel or jam it up? If you don’t want to be sensitive and be the best you can, you’re sand.” It’s that kind of sensitivity training that isn’t on a PowerPoint. You only acquire this type of skill by showing up fully every day and doing your best. It’s always about being of service and I feel lucky to have spent my career, here. You learn more, here, than you are taught.  Another favorite training was to pair up with a person we support who had a birthday closest to one’s own, then review the information or the life record of that person, and compare the differences and similarities.  Kind of a “walk a mile in my shoes.” To me, the most important factor going forward is to “want” to know each person we support.  It is the purpose of all activities, goals, plans and discussion. So that we at AHRC, Citizens, et al, can be sure that each sparrow is cared for and empowered while under our watch.