By Emily Falco

When you meet Jimmy Severino, it’s no surprise that he is known by many as “The Mayor of Ithaca.” His personality is magnetic and he has made many friends throughout the city over the years he has lived there.

Above, Jimmy stands with Jessica Schifilliti, STC care manager and Willowbrook liaison. 

Jimmy is involved with his community in many respects. For the past 30 years, he has been employed as a custodian at Challenge Industries, a non-profit that helps create pathways to employment for people with disabilities or barriers. He loves working and saves a good part of his money to go on vacation or attend baseball training camps every year.morabilia, including a framed photo of Mickey Mantle.
One of Jimmy’s greatest loves is sports. He is an avid bowler and has a large display of trophies on his shelves, including a special plaque and ring he received when inducted into the bowling hall of fame. His bowling league took a hiatus during the pandemic, but is finally starting up again this month, and Jimmy is thrilled to get back in the game. He is also a huge Yankees and Mets fan, and every year he goes to a Buffalo Bills game, although he likes the New England Patriots more. Dozens of Special Olympics medals proudly hang along his dining room wall. He plays volleyball, baseball, runs track, and loves snowshoeing and golf. He has a large collection of sports caps, jackets, and memorabilia, including a framed photo of Mickey Mantle.

Above, Jimmy proudly displays his huge collection of bowling trophies. Below, a 1950s postcard of the Willowbrook State School. 

Jimmy has had an incredible life journey so far.

Despite being non-verbal, Jimmy is very communicative and discerning. He was born in New York City in the mid-1950s, and as a young child, around seven years of age, he was admitted into The Willowbrook State School, a state-supported institution for children with intellectual disabilities located on Staten Island.

For those of you who may not know about the environment at Willowbrook, it was a very sad situation for young people with intellectual conditions back then. Willowbrook was notorious for abuse and neglect, serving as a warehouse of sorts for children (and eventually, adults) with developmental disabilities. By 1965, the school housed over 6,000 residents, 2,000 people over its maximum capacity. As a result, residents were left unattended; naked, or in rags. Some children were strapped to beds or chairs, or left alone within filthy wards without care or interaction. On top of the overcrowding, short staff number made it impossible to provide adequate care for the children, who had often been abandoned there by their families.

Finally, in the 1970s, widespread advocacy for the people at Willowbrook began to take hold. Geraldo Rivera, an investigative reporter for WABC-TV in New York, conducted a series of investigations on the institution, exposing the abuse and unsanitary conditions there. As a result, over 5,000 parents of Willowbrook students sued the State of New York, and a consent decree was signed to commit NYS to improve community placement for the now-designated “Willowbrook Class.”
Despite this, Willowbrook remained open until the mid-1980s, and it was at this time that Jimmy finally left the facility and moved upstate, into a group Individual Residential Alternative (IRA) home in Ithaca.

This is where Jimmy’s life began to get really good.

The support staff at the IRA helped Jimmy express his needs and wants and work on achieving his goals toward independence, like doing activities he enjoys, finding his job at Challenge, and eventually moving into his own apartment. Jimmy has lived in his own place for over 20 years and still keeps in touch with some direct support professionals who first helped him with his progress. One, in particular, Valerie, is a best friend of his. Even though she doesn’t work at Challenge anymore, they keep in touch on a regular basis and Jimmy spends holidays like Christmas, Thanksgiving, and the Super Bowl at her house. They’re even planning a trip to Florida together in the near future.

Jimmy used to utilize community habilitation four days a week, but since the pandemic began, it dropped down to two. While this took some adjustment, it also made him a little more independent. Jimmy uses the public bus system for transportation, navigating routes and schedules on his own, and he walks down to the Triphammer mall to have his haircut by himself. Community habilitation staff help him manage his finances, do his shopping, and recently, become more independent cooking on his own.

Jimmy laughs at how he used to be the “Domino’s delivery guru.” Pizza is his favorite food, and it was just convenient to order it all the time, especially when he was busier during the week. But now, Jimmy has found the joy of cooking, and has assembled a thick three-ring binder filled with crockpot recipes that he likes to make on his own. He also just subscribed to Home Chef, a weekly food subscription with fresh, pre-portioned ingredients to make home-cooked meals.

A few years back, something really exciting happened for Jimmy.

Jimmy never knew his family and there wasn’t much information from Willowbrook about them. So a few years ago, he decided to take a genealogy test through an online DNA analysis service. He got the results and there were two matches! Jimmy had found his two sisters, Debbie, in Alabama, and Angelica, in California. After he contacted them, they were both overjoyed to learn they had a brother and came to visit him in Ithaca. Unfortunately, Debbie passed away from COVID-19 in 2021, but Jimmy still keeps in touch with Angelica, her daughter, and his great-niece with FaceTime and handwritten letters. Angelica is planning to host a family reunion this upcoming September, and Jimmy wants to go if he can find a staff or friend to support him on the trip.

A framed photograph of Jimmy with his two sisters. Jimmy found his siblings after taking a DNA/genealogy test through an online agency and they were delighted to meet each other! 

Jimmy loves to travel and saves all of his money to take vacations, many of which he books through Tulip Travel, a travel agency providing vacation opportunities for people with developmental disabilities and mobility impairments. He has been to Hawaii three times and will take his fourth trip there this October. He has been to Universal Studios and Radio City Music Hall, and he also likes to go to baseball training camps. He dreams of someday visiting Amsterdam in Holland.  

Despite the years he spent at Willowbrook, Jimmy’s spirit is far from broken; he truly lights up the room. Another admirable thing about him is that he is very active in charity and fundraising. It started with “Cops on Top,” a fundraising event for the Special Olympics where cops stand on top of Dunkin’ Donuts. Since then, Jimmy also makes annual monetary contributions to the Carter Foundation, Disabled American Vets, Easter Seals, Alzheimer’s Research, and more. He takes pride in giving back to his community.

Jessica Schifilliti is Jimmy’s care manager, and she is also Southern Tier Connect’s Willowbrook liaison, a position that requires additional training and certifications due to the circumstances of Willowbrook. Together, she and Jimmy have discussed the idea of self-direction, but it still has some challenges for him, as the services he wants might not be available. Jimmy is a self-advocate for all his decisions.

For the future, Jimmy hopes to find an apartment in downtown Ithaca so he’ll have more accessibility to walk places. The Racker Center is building a new complex downtown, so he’s hoping he can secure a new apartment there when it’s finished. But overall, Jimmy is content with his life. At his current age of 65, he adamantly confirms that he has no plans to retire. He loves to see the people he works with every week, and loves that his job enables him to travel. Rock on, Jimmy!