After Emily Perl Kingsley’s son, Jason, was born, he was diagnosed with Down Syndrome. While early on she thought of it as the darkest time of her life, things changed thanks to a single meeting.
“In those days, when you had a child who was born with Down Syndrome, the prognosis was so terrible that we were literally told this was a child -- I’m not telling Jason anything that he hasn’t heard before -- that we couldn’t expect him ever to accomplish anything, that he was not going to read or write or walk or talk or accomplish anything at all,” she said. “The luckiest day of our lives was the day that we met Jerry Staller because he was the one who got us started on the incredible journey that has brought us to where we are today.”
Staller brought to Kingsley and her son a new kind of teaching strategy for working with Jason, something not many others were doing four-plus decades ago.
“It was brand new in those days,” Kingsley said. “As a matter of fact, when it was introduced to us, they told us that there was something that was very new, very controversial, that was very innovative and experimental called early intervention.”
Kingsley talked about her and her son’s work with Staller Wednesday morning at , where Staller is the director of educational and clinical services, and where the playground on the New City campus was being named in his honor. The playground is now known as “Jerry’s Place.”
Since working with Staller, Jason Kingsley has gone on to earn a high school diploma and even wrote a book about growing up with down syndrome. On Wednesday, he said that along with his parents, Staller was his first teacher.
“Jerry helped me learn to sit up, walk and pick up things. I accomplished a lot in my life because I got a great start because people believed in me,” he said of Staller. “He didn’t give up on me. I didn’t give up on him. Now I live in a house with two other roommates. I work at Westchester ARC. I take public transportation on the bus. I acted on television.”
While many have passed through Jawonio over the years under Staller’s tutelage, Emily Perl Kingsley remembers Staller telling her they were essentially making it up and just trying a variety of different tests as they went along back when he was working with Jason.
“We were flying by the seat of our pants, we were doing all kinds of stimulation exercises, putting feathers on the bottoms of his feet and dumping him into boxes of styrofoam pellets and boxes full of rice to simulate all of his senses,” she said. “And then there was the famous day that we dumped him into a big pot of Jell-O just to see what it would be like and it was onward and upward from there.”
Staller said that he remembers starting out back while working with Emily and Jason Kingsley. He talked about a crew filming some of the work they were doing to send to a conference in Milan, Italy, because the concept of treating a child from birth was so different back then. Since that time, Staller said, they’ve even more so come to realize exactly what they are working toward.
“Only with time did we learn that we were bonding families and children. That’s what it was all about,” he said. “And if they’re bonded and if they’re comfortable with each other in spite of the emerging awareness of what the limitations are going to be and the challenges, if we can get families together productively, then obviously great things can happen.”
The playground has a newly painted multi-color fence and an adaptive swing that was . Murphy was in attendance to see the playground named after Staller, who added that having the playground named after him was a great honor.
“Playgrounds represent where we do, where we function and where we make the world of our children real and happy,” Staller said. “The fact that it’s a place that we can not only bring the children into play, but can play with them is very meaningful to me.”
Ilana and Glenn Meyers were also honored for donating money to Jawonio. They made their donation through the Slater Jett Meyers Foundation, a non-profit organization they started in honor of their son, who died due to brain damage when he was eight-months-old.
Also on hand were numerous Jawonio workers, board members and supporters. Assemblywoman Ellen Jaffee and Assemblyman Ken Zebrowski were also in attendance to show their support. Staller thanked the crowd of about 40 people for coming out and said he couldn’t believe so many people showed up on such a hot day.
“He dragged me through the darkest time of my life and I don’t care where I might have been on this planet today, there is no place that I would’ve been but right here today to thank this man for pulling me through and getting me started on this incredible journey,” Emily Perl Kingsley said. “My gratitude to this man is unbounded and bottomless because I could not have survived that period of time in my life without him. He has my undying gratitude forever.”