Ed Orzechowsk: Belchertown patients deserve respectful, lasting memorial

  • Recent demolition at the former Belchertown State School. gazette file photo/Carol Lollis

Published: 4/8/2019 12:05:32 PM

Two years ago, I collaborated with Donald Vitkus, a former patient at Belchertown State School, to write his story.

Donald was 6 years old when he was admitted to Belchertown in 1949 as patient #3394 — when they told him, “You’ll like it here,” which became the title of our book. Donald grew up in the institution, and he never liked it. He wanted his story told so people would remember, so it would never happen again.

Belchertown closed 26 years ago, and today the place is barely recognizable. The town built a new police station there several years ago, there’s a modern continuing care facility on the site, and a proposal to construct a brewery on the grounds.

All that remains of the state school is the crumbling administration building and a few former residence halls. The late Dr. Benjamin Ricci of Amherst, leader of Advocacy Network, and many others worked hard to close the institutions formerly operated by the Massachusetts Department of Developmental Services.

The redevelopment of those properties is to be expected and there’s much to be celebrated in the improved lives of our citizens with developmental disabilities. Today, DDS and its contractors provide much-needed services for their residents, and community settings are much more homelike.

But there’s an irony here. What happened in the 20th century at Belchertown and other Massachusetts institutions — eugenics, radiation experimentation, day-to-day abuse and neglect — cannot be erased and should not be forgotten.

Existing archives are scattered and disorganized. I’m currently interviewing another former Belchertown patient, a woman named Darlene, for her story. When I told Darlene about what’s left of the institution, she said, “It’ll be like we were never there, like we never existed.”

I don’t think that’s right. I’ve heard of plans for a walking trail with plaques to be a remembrance, but there needs to be something more substantial — a museum, a memorial, a place for archives, photos and exhibits, a place that preserves what happened there.

I urge the Department of Developmental Services, the Massachusetts Legislature and local officials to create a lasting, respectful memorial, a tangible commemoration to all the living and deceased former residents of Belchertown and the other institutions.

What they experienced, what they endured, must not be forgotten.

Ed Orzechowski

Author of “You’ll like it here”

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