Editorial: A story of one man’s triumph over horrors at Belchertown State School

  • Donald Vitkus, who spent 11 years at the Belchertown State School, talks about his experiences from his room at the Community Living Center of the VA Medical Center in Leeds on Feb. 26. His wife, Patricia, is beside him. He tells his story in the book “You’ll Like it Here” which was published last year. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 4/4/2017 9:11:15 PM

“You’ll Like it Here ” is the story of the resiliency of Donald Vitkus and a reminder of the horrors he overcame at Belchertown State School.

The book written by retired English teacher Ed Orzechowski, of Northampton, was published last fall by Levellers Press in Amherst. Vitkus, now 73 and living at the VA Medical Center in Leeds, became patient #3394 at the state school when he was left there on July 13, 1949, by the last of his six sets of foster parents. They told the 6-year-old boy that he would like it there.

His unwed mother, Veronica Vitkus, had left him in the care of the state’s welfare department when he was 27 days old. An IQ test at age 3 classified Donald as a “moron” — not quite as hopeless as an “idiot” or “imbecile,” all official categories used then to classify patients in the state’s institutions.

Vitkus was one of some 1,300 residents crammed into locked wards, behind barred windows, at Belchertown State School. While many of those people had severe disabilities, others, like Vitkus, ended up being warehoused because they were misdiagnosed, orphaned or simply unwanted. The conditions of squalor, stench, neglect, cruelty and abuse are chronicled in Orzechowski’s book.

Vitkus left the state school in 1960, when he was 17, and moved to a Catholic orphanage in West Springfield. But the horrific conditions in the wards where he had lived persisted for years. They prompted a class-action lawsuit filed in 1972 by parents of residents who sought improved conditions, and led to a visit by U.S. District Court Judge Joseph L. Tauro in May 1973.

What Tauro saw that day, and the resulting media coverage, focused attention on the inhumane treatment at the state schools in Belchertown and elsewhere in Massachusetts. Tauro found naked residents sleeping on the floor, covered in insect bites. Tauro described seeing “clogged plumbing, unattended residents drinking out of commodes, and an overwhelming stench of urine and feces. And there was incessant screaming … a soundtrack of horrible screaming.”

Tauro’s ruling in favor of the residents forced the state to spend millions to bring its institutions for disabled people “closer to the 21st century than the 19th century.” The Belchertown State School closed in 1992 after most of its residents were moved to programs in the community.

Meanwhile, Vitkus went on to serve in the Army in Vietnam, earn an associate degree in human services at Holyoke Community College, work at U.S. Envelope in West Springfield for 30 years, marry twice and father two children. Eventually, he got a job as a personal caregiver and began advocating for better treatment of disabled people.

Vitkus and Orzechowski met in 2005 when the writer visited Holyoke Community College for a book signing. Vitkus, then a 62-year-old student, asked Orzechowski if he was interested in helping write his life story. Eleven years and more than 40 hours of interviews later, the book was published.

It comes nearly three decades after Ruth Sienkiewicz-Mercer told a similar inspirational story in her memoir, “I Raise my Eyes to Say Yes,” published in 1989. Cerebral palsy left her a quadriplegic, and though her mind continued to function, she was wrongly diagnosed as an “imbecile” at age 6. Starting in 1962, she spent 16 years at Belchertown State School.

After Sienkiewicz-Mercer met Steve Kaplan at an educational program in 1979, the two collaborated on her autobiography off and on for nine years. She used facial expressions and a word board to communicate. After the book was published, Sinkiewicz-Mercer advocated nationally for the rights of disabled people until she died at age 47 in 1998.

While Vitkus and Sienkiewicz-Mercer overcame inhumane treatment at the state school, many other people did not. That was a powerful incentive for Vitkus to have his life story published.

“I wanted to do it so we never open places like that again,” he says.

There will be a book signing and reading for “You’ll Like it Here” at 11 a.m. April 12 at Holyoke Community College.




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