Jessie (sailorangei) wrote in ontd_political,

For mentally challenged Staten Island couple, a marriage worth wait

For those not familiar with the Willowbrook State School:


Source: Staten Island Advance (local paper)

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — Burt Petrone, 88, and the former Barbara LaRoy, 72, celebrated their 25th anniversary Tuesday. It should have been their 30th anniversary, but it took five years for the state of New York to grant them a marriage license.

This is not your typical love story.

Burt and Barbara, both born with developmental disabilities, were institutionalized as adolescents in the former Willowbrook State School, where they suffered intolerable conditions for a combined total of 43 years.

When they left the facility — which eventually was shut down due to blatant mistreatment of its patients — in the late ‘70s, the two were transferred to facilities operated by Volunteers of America (VOA), a nonprofit, human services organization. It wasn’t until a few years later that they met at a day program run by United Cerebral Palsy of New York City in Port Richmond.

On March 8, 1979, a Thursday, they officially became “boyfriend and girlfriend.” On Dec. 19, 1980, a Friday, they got engaged. On June 8, 1985, a Saturday, Burt, then 63, and Barbara, 47, exchanged nuptial vows at El Bethel Assembly of God Church in Westerleigh.

Burt rattles off the days and dates effortlessly. He has total recall of dates and weather reports for historical and personal events, according to Anthony DiSalvo, founder of Sprout, a nonprofit organization that assists individuals with developmental disabilities with travel excursions.

DiSalvo met the Petrones on their delayed honeymoon — the couple’s first vacation — in 1986, when he and two other Sprout leaders escorted a group of 10 adults with developmental disabilities on a cruise to Mexico.

Burt Petrone and the former Barbara LaRoy on their wedding day on June 8, 1985. The couple had to wait five years for a marriage license.

Of the trip, Di Salvo remembers Burt was a hit with the other tourists.

“I put him in the talent show as the musical savant,” he said, adding that Burt also is a self-taught musician and composer.

Di Salvo instructed the audience to give Burt a special date — a birthday or anniversary — including the year. Burt would give them the day of the week it landed on and then play a song.

“The rest of the cruise, they [the tourists] loved him,” Di Salvo remarked.

Burt’s abilities made an impression on Di Salvo, who decided to star him and Barbara, the quiet one in the relationship who mimics what her husband says, in a documentary filmed in 2001.

Di Salvo said it took a while before he was granted permission to film “Burt” due to rules protecting residents released from Willowbrook State School. Rules, he imagines, played a role in the state’s delay in granting the couple a marriage license.

Florine Ugwoke, a resident manager with VOA, however, believes the delay was because marriages between people with developmental disabilities weren’t really being done at the time.

“It took a lot of people to get involved, including assemblymen,” to petition on the Petrones’ behalf, she said.

There also was the issue of consensual sex. At Willowbrook State School many instances of sexual abuse were discovered where staff members and higher-functioning residents took advantage of lower-functioning patients. Even today, Ms. Ugwoke said, therapists must work with developmentally disabled couples to ensure they “know everything about an intimate relationship, physically.

“It took a lot of doctors, a lot of paperwork, a lot of things to make sure [the Petrones] could live together, and if they were truly having a physical, intimate relationship, that she [Barbara] was not going to turn around and say, ‘He touched me in an inappropriate way,’¤” Ms. Ugwoke said.

Volunteers of America, which provides the couple round-the-clock assistance at their apartment in Bridgeview Senior Citizens Housing in Port Richmond, was unable to track down anyone directly involved with the case to verify whether this was the reason for the delay.

What is undeniable is the tenderness that exists between Burt and Barbara, said their care worker for the past 17 years, Sheila Leverette, observing, “They’re really, really close.”

Often spotted holding hands, the couple does everything together. During the week they attend workshops at Carmel Richmond Health Care and Rehabilitation Center in Dongan Hills and night classes at the College of Staten Island. On Saturdays, they go to the dollar store and every Sunday, the couple attend the same church where they were married.

Asked the secret to their marriage’s success, Burt said, “It’s easy. Sometimes we get into a little argument, but it don’t last.”

They have the same issues as any other couple. For instance, there was the time Barbara said she needed space from Burt because they were doing everything together. So staff at Carmel Richmond had Burt sit at a different table. But when women at the new table gave him a lot of attention, Barbara got jealous. Now they sit at sex-segregated tables.

Burt is obviously the strong-willed one, but he dotes on Barbara. A favorite tune he plays on the keyboard is “You Are My Sunshine.” Only, he sings “You are My Barbara” instead.

In honor of their silver anniversary, VOA hosted a party for the couple in the Staaten, West Brighton. Later this summer, the couple will take a cruise to Canada, along with two VOA staffers, who will be providing 24-hour help.


Thought this was sweet, and it GMH. <3

Thank you much to the mod who helped me with tagging. ^__^
Tags: disabilities, marriage, new york

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