Lisa and Brad Gilbert: Ensuring Riley Lives Live to the Fullest
For two years, a friend of Brad and Lisa Gilbert’s – someone they had known since high school – had been taking care of their daughter, Riley. The woman was a mom, too, and the Gilberts trusted her completely.
On March 27, 2007, they dropped Riley off, kissed her goodbye and went to work. It was just like every other day.
It was lunch time when they got the call that Riley wasn’t waking up from a nap.
Just 2 years old, Riley was rushed into surgery. It wasn’t until Brad and Lisa talked with a doctor afterward that it really hit home: what happened to their daughter wasn’t an accident. Riley had suffered a traumatic brain injury, caused by her babysitter.
“Our whole world was shattered, everything changed,” Lisa recalled. “We were thrown into this world of doctors, hospitals, insurance companies, and it seemed like we should know what to do, know how to get Riley everything she needed.”
But it wasn’t easy navigating their new reality. The Office of Victim Services helped simplify their complex journey.
“The first time I called OVS, I was in tears because our insurance company denied a toilet seat for Riley, saying it wasn’t medically necessary. I couldn’t understand how that could be the case,” Lisa said.
The agency assisted the Gilberts in obtaining the toilet seat and since then, staff have helped the couple ensure Riley gets the medical care and equipment she needs.
“We were told she was blind. She's legally blind but has some sight. Vision therapy has allowed her to communicate with an assistive device, at home and school, “Lisa said. “Hippotherapy has made her physically stronger. And she looks forward to those days because like many other 11-year-old girls, Riley loves horses.”
But as Riley grew, the Gilberts faced another challenge. It became harder for the family to navigate their home. In addition to Riley, the couple has a son, Zachary, who is 8.
“We had this house – our home – where we wanted to raise our family. We never bought it as a starter home. And then all of a sudden, Riley’s hurt,” Lisa said. “There is no way we would have been able to modify our house to meet her needs the way that OVS has allowed us to do. To us, our home is everything. That was a huge undertaking and a huge blessing.”
“OVS really helped us adapt to our situation,” Brad added.
The agency renovated their home, making it completely wheelchair accessible, including an elevator and carport.
“Nine years ago, Brad and I weren’t sure Riley would survive, but she defied the odds,” Lisa said. “We will never stop fighting for her to get what she needs to live life to the fullest. We’re so glad that OVS is in our corner.”
Jennifer Nadler’s life was unravelling.
Through her adolescence and while in college, she did what she could to suppress the dark feelings that had rooted in her conscience after being sexually abused as a child. But after taking a job as a middle school teacher – surrounded by students who were the same age as she was when victimized – the memories rapidly came to the surface.
They eventually brought Nadler to a point of crisis, forcing her to seek inpatient psychiatric hospitalization.
“It was the start of the journey,” she said. “It was the ripping off of this Band-Aid and then I’m looking at this mess.”
Nadler resigned her job, fell behind in her student loan payments and began to accrue debt, which got worse as she began to recover. The co-payments on her medical expenses cost thousands of dollars.
But Nadler had a powerful ally on her side: the state Office of Victim Services. She was introduced to a victim’s advocate funded through the agency and reported her abuse to authorities, another step in the healing process.
The advocate also advised Nadler about the compensation available through OVS, money that would ultimately help cover her mounting medical bills, and helped her navigate the agency’s application process.
“It was hard for me to get out of bed, it was hard for me to make meals and it was hard for me to leave the house,” she said. “She would come over and hold my hand and say ‘let's find these documents that you need and let's walk through this together.’ I don't know if I would have had the capacity and the energy to go through it on my own.”
Because of OVS, the uninsured part of Nadler’s medical care – a bill of more than $14,000 –was covered.
“It just took such a weight off of my shoulders and I felt like I could breathe again and really focus on healing instead of worrying about how I was going to pay for my mortgage and how I was going to pay for the car and my student loans,” she said. “It was a great relief and it really helped me to better focus on getting well.”
Vera House, an OVS-funded program that assists victims of domestic and sexual violence, also was instrumental in her healing and she is now a member of the agency’s Board of Directors.
An adjunct professor at Onondaga Community College, Nadler also has found her voice as an advocate, sharing her story across the state and nation with a variety of audiences, including high school and college students.
“One of the things that really helped for me was realizing that I wasn't alone, because for so long that's the way I felt,” she said. “Once I was finally heard and realized that I wasn't the only one that this happened to, that gave me some comfort and it also gave me this feeling of power.”
Nadler also found tremendous strength from fellow survivors, her husband and dedicated medical and mental health professionals who helped her put the pieces of her life back together.
“There is no more sorrow in my heart and no more silence from my lips,” Nadler said. “I am nothing but proud to say that I am a professor, a wife, a mother, and yes, a sexual abuse survivor. I no longer focus on the words sexual abuse. I focus on the word survivor.”
Nothing could have prepared David Snowden for life without the use of his legs.
At 25, he was an independent, up-and-coming sports marketing executive living in a middle-class neighborhood in Queens. But then came the evening of July 9, 1991, a night that would permanently transform his life.
Snowden was chatting with a friend outside his apartment when he heard the sound of firecrackers. Then he fell to the ground.
“I was laying there and I realized I couldn’t get up,” Snowden recalled. “I heard people screaming and yelling – a cacophony of noise. And I couldn’t get up. I just thought it was because I was scared. I thought it was a dream and at some point that I would wake up from this dream. And then all of a sudden it was just quiet.”
A group of armed men in a red car had driven by and opened fire. Both Snowden and his friend – neither one the intended target of the shooters ---were wounded.
But it was Snowden who caught the brunt of the fusillade. He was hit by five bullets, including two that pierced his spine.
Still, the moment seemed surreal for Snowden, almost as if he were watching it on television. In the back of an ambulance and then at the hospital, he had trouble coming to grips with what had happened.
"I had no idea what that meant, what I had to deal with in life. So it was traumatic," he recalled recently. "Here I am a guy who went to school, got my degree. I don't curse and I still don't. I don't drink, I don't smoke, I don't do drugs and this happened to me."
The weeks that followed were trying. At times, Snowden found himself at a proverbial fork in the road: one direction leading to recovery and the other to a much darker place.
“I'm talking about depression. I'm talking about drinking. I'm talking about drugs – prescription drugs – because when individual in my situation has a traumatic injury, that's one of the things they prescribe,’ he said.
But his better angels prevailed. Snowden was fortunate to have a strong support network of friends and family and assistance from the New York State Office of Victim Services also helped immeasurably. The agency retrofitted his apartment for wheelchair accessibility, made his vehicle adaptable so he could drive it with hand controls, and paid for a variety of medical supplies, filling any gaps left by his insurance.
OVS also provided Snowden a familiar voice to contact whenever something related to his injury went awry. The claims specialist who first helped him continued stayed with his case as Snowden adapted to life in a wheelchair.
“I always felt that they almost took it personally, that they realized the situation that I was in,” he said. “But they were readily available, they answered all the questions, I received expeditious replies. If I had concerns, they've always address them.”
The assistance also helped ensure the injury didn’t sideline Snowden’s career. He continued his work in sports marketing, serving as head of disabled services for Madison Square Garden, among other positions. He also founded – and played for – the New York Rollin’ Knicks, part of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association. In Atlanta, where he now lives, he’s a member of the city’s Shepherd Stealers.
Even now, more than a quarter century after that fateful night in 1991, OVS continues to assist Snowden. When he needed surgery to correct a repetitive use injury to his shoulder, the agency was there to cover whatever portion of the cost that wasn’t covered by insurance.
"I can say clearly, I have a strong faith in God and my family, but also I truly believe that if I didn't have the resources of the New York State Office of Victims Services I wouldn't be where I am today," Snowden said.
Christine White, left, and Amy Maitland, Chief Operating Officer for Services, Cattaraugus Community Action
Christine White never wants her young daughters to forget Ianna Doris Maybee, her 3-year-old daughter killed eight years ago, before they were born.
Each January on Ianna’s birthday, White brings them to visit the cemetery where Ianna is buried. They release balloons and each kiss a smiling image of Ianna etched on the granite headstone, based on a photograph of the toddler taken just months before her father took her young life.
“It keeps it going,” White said of the headstone. “[My daughters] know now when they’re there, it’s for their sister. It shows me that she’ll always be remembered.”
Assistance from the OVS enabled White to have that peaceful place to keep Ianna’s memory alive. Burial and funeral costs are just one type of compensation that the agency provides to innocent victims of crime and their families.
In the months leading up to Ianna’s death, White was 19, without a steady job or home. She hoped that her ex-husband’s home in Salamanca would serve as a relatively stable refuge for their daughter. Instead, the unthinkable happened in March 2008, when Ianna’s lifeless body was found in bed. The girl’s father, Guy Maybee, was arrested in connection with her death the next day. He is serving a 20-year prison sentence for the crime.
White, who was still trying to comprehend what had happened, was left to arrange her young daughter’s funeral with hardly any money to her name. A member of the Seneca Nation, White received help from the tribe, but the money couldn’t cover all the costs associated with Ianna’s funeral.
Victim advocates working with the Cattaraugus County District Attorney’s Office knew that OVS could help. The office connected White with Cattaraugus Community Action – one of 223 service providers the agency funds – so Ianna’s funeral and burial costs could be covered.
The assistance provided by OVS to innocent victims of crime and their families is made possible solely through court fees assessed when offenders are sentenced in state and federal court. For White, the financial help meant she was able to pick out a fitting casket for her daughter, have a funeral service and then purchase a headstone for her grave site.
“It was a big, big help to know that I could go there and pick out what I wanted for my daughter and not have to worry about the price or the numbers on there,” she said. “So with that help, it was a big, big stress reliever because I was still going through what had happened to her…it was just a big help – a big stress relief –to know that she could actually get a proper burial.”
Cattaraugus Community Action also supports the Lionel John Health Center on the Seneca Nation and with its funding from OVS, also operates outreach programs on the Allegany reservation, including a support group for domestic violence victims. The agency also created the Ianna Maybee Award to honor the little girl’s memory and recognize individuals who demonstrate strength and courage in being a survivor of crime. It is presented annually.
Amy Maitland, the agency’s chief operating officer for services, said, “We’ve been able to really assist crime victims on and off the reservation and the New York State Office of Victim Services has really been helpful in allowing us to be able to expand our services to reach all populations in Cattaraugus County.”
Always on the Move
From left to right: Ann Marie Calabrese, Tayloni Mazyck and Priscilla Samuels
Friends call her Lamborghini.
Tayloni Mazyck’s playful nickname comes from the one speed at which she operates her motorized wheelchair: fast. Priscilla Samuels is often awed by how quickly her 14-year-old daughter navigates into and around their apartment complex in Harlem.
“She’s gotten real comfortable with driving that chair,” she said. “She’s gotten comfortable with living out here. So now, when she comes home, she’s like ‘Mom, I’m home. Mom, can I go outside?’ And she’s gone.”
Life was much different before a random act of violence three years earlier. Tayloni was sitting with her mother outside of their old home in Brooklyn when a gang member opened fire on a rival.
A stray bullet caught the young girl in the chin and became lodged in her spine. In an instant, the fiercely independent child who loved running and dancing became a prisoner within her own body. She was paralyzed, left without the use of her legs.
When the family moved to their Harlem neighborhood, Tayloni’s new home was difficult to navigate. The small apartment lacked a bathtub she could use and its layout didn’t provide her with much room to move. The shooting also left Tayloni without full use of her arms, which means she needs to be lifted and carried any time she wants – or needs – to leave her wheelchair.
“When I first came home [from the hospital], it was hard for me to get around the house,” Tayloni recalled.
Samuels began talking with OVS about those challenges. The result was the installation of a track-and-pulley system – funded by the agency – that lifts Tayloni from her wheelchair and guides her to any area of the apartment. OVS also funded other modifications, including the installation of a wheelchair-accessible bathtub.
Samuels is quick to praise Ann Marie Calabrese, the OVS staffer who helped arrange for the improvements and continues to assist the family today. They have grown to know each other well, despite not meeting in person until recently. Calabrese even sent Tayloni a lavender bath towel set and special soaps as a personal gift to celebrate the installation of her new tub.
“OVS has been wonderful to Tayloni and to me,” Samuels said.
This spring, Tayloni attended her eighth-grade prom wearing a frothy white dress specially designed to cover her wheelchair. She also graduated with honors from the New Design Middle School and spoke at the ceremony, telling her fellow students that she refuses be defined by her injury.
It’s a philosophy that Samuels has instilled in her daughter – a never-give-up attitude that has inspired the young girl to study in the hope of one day attending Harvard Law School. She credits the assistance their family received from OVS for helping Tayloni realize that she doesn’t need to be dependent on anyone.
“My main objective and my goal for her is to get her independence,” Samuels said.
From left to right: Valerie Roberts, Noreen Fyvie and Kim Spoonhower
When Noreen Fyvie took a job with the state’s Crime Victims Board in 1978, the agency had only a handful of employees working in a small Albany office outfitted with little more than a few desks, three filing cabinets and a large black ledger.
Then 17, she answered a classified ad for a stenographer’s position with the agency. When the director tried to hire on the spot, she had to defer the offer for several months.
“I said ‘I have to finish high school first,’” she recalled, laughing at the memory.
A lot has changed since then. Now known as the state Office of Victim Services, the agency has 74 employees and occupies nearly an entire floor of the Alfred E. Smith State Office Building. It also now annually disperses about $20 million in aid to innocent victims of crime and provides roughly $43.8 million in funding to 223 victim assistance programs across the state.
Still, workers at OVS share the same common bond they did when Fyvie first started: A passion for helping people. Even though the agency is far removed from its humble origins, its employees have a knack for personally connecting with each crime victim that requests assistance.
“It’s the gratification – it definitely is – of doing whatever I can do to make people’s lives better,” Fyvie said.
Kim Spoonhower came to the agency 1996 from the Crime Victims Assistance Center in Binghamton, where she saw the positive impact the agency had on those utilizing its services. She saw working for the state as a way that she could bring about systemic change to help victims of crime.
“The Office of Victim Services provides critical, important, necessary services to individuals of crime and I’m so proud to be a part of that,” she said. “OVS accomplishes its mission over and over again, every single day of the week, 365 days a year.”
Valerie Roberts has helped countless crime victims since joining the agency in 1991, but one woman, who approached her during a legislative awareness day several years ago, stands out.
“She told me how her son had been injured and he was a victim of a crime. He was sitting in a hospital just deteriorating,” Roberts remembered. “She didn’t know what to do and she hadn’t ever heard of the Crime Victims Board.”
Roberts took up the case immediately and helped the woman secure medical care and other services to assist her son and ease the family’s burden.
“We have to think outside the box when victims come because not all victims need the same thing,” she said. “So we are there to advocate on their behalf, get them what they need and supply them with everything so that they can put their life back to a whole.”
That’s what OVS employees do daily: Find solutions to the problems people face as a result of being the victim of a crime, whether someone is the only victim or one of thousands. After Sept. 11, agency employees handled a virtual avalanche of claims from the survivors and families of those killed in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.
In Albany, OVS employees staffed a hotline for victims around the clock. They stayed well beyond their normal shifts to organize claims. Some even opted to grab a few hours of sleep in their vehicles so they could get back to work in the morning without having to go home.
“Those people at the Crime Victims Board worked seven days a week, 12 hours a day –sometimes 16 hours a day,” said Lorraine Felegy, who served as counsel and then a member of the board. “That’s the kind of dedication people at the agency have. They will do whatever needs to be done to get the job done, as difficult of a job as it can be.”
In New York City, OVS staff joined a cluster of support agencies at the Pier 94 Family Assistance Center. For months, the agency maintained a presence there to help victims of the attacks, even if it meant just talking to them for a while.
“It’s really been my honor and privilege to work with them for the last 20 years – I couldn’t wish for a better group to spend my day with or make my job more rewarding,” Spoonhower said. “I have to say that over the course of my life time, I am one of the few individuals that can say, ‘I went to work every day and loved my job and couldn’t believe that they paid me for it’ because it’s the kind of work that touches your soul.”
Schenectady County Distric Attorney Rober M. Carney and Diane Spencer, Crime Victims Specialist
With her calm demeanor, she can approach crime victims delicately and give them the support they need, whether it’s help navigating through court proceedings or simply offering them a shoulder to cry on when their emotions run high. She often acts as a liaison between crime victims and prosecutors at the Schenectady County District Attorney’s Office, where she now works full-time.
“I help people through the judicial system 100 percent, from beginning to end,” she said.
Spencer also is in a unique position to empathize with anguish and swirl of other emotions experienced by crime victims. She experienced those feelings herself.
Her daughter, 22-year-old Jennifer Fake, was murdered in a Saratoga Springs motel room in 2003. The man that killed her daughter later admitted to his crime, but it did little to alleviate the sorrow that welled inside Spencer.
With urging from a victim’s advocate at the Saratoga County District Attorney’s Office, Spencer drafted a powerful impact statement. She delivered at the sentencing of her daughter’s murderer, even as he tried to keep from listening.
“They took him and put him in a cell with speakers and kept him handcuffed so he could hear everything I said,” she recalled.
Empowered by the experience, Spencer decided the best way to heal from the pain of her daughter’s death was to provide other crime victims with the same support she received during her ordeal. Less than a year later, she began volunteering with the Schenectady County District Attorney’s Office.
Spencer’s work with victims on a volunteer level convinced her to seek a career in the field. She worked part-time for several non-profit agencies before getting a full-time offer from Schenectady County District Attorney Robert M. Carney in 2006, a job made possible with funding from the state Office of Victim Services.
Like any administrator overseeing a government office or agency, Carney needs to be mindful of his budget. Having consistent funding from OVS – the result of fines, fees and surcharges paid by certain offenders convicted in state and federal court – is critical when it comes to negotiating his budget with the county legislature.
“This is one program where I’ve always been able to say, ‘They’ve always been there, they’ve always given us money, and they’ve increased the support for victim advocacy over the years realizing the importance of it,” he said. “OVS allows me to provide direct assistance to victims while my lawyers and investigators work on presenting the best case that they can to achieve justice.”
For Spencer, the job has been both healing and fulfilling.
“I think if Jennifer could see what I was doing today, she would be very happy that I'm helping people in same position as I was in and that I didn't just drown in my sorrow,” she said.
His relative stole everything.
She liquidated his investments and drained his bank accounts while he was living in a nursing home. She even sold his coin collection for a quick buck to fuel her lavish tastes and expensive vacations.
In his mid-80s, the man was left without a penny to his name and deep sense of mistrust. But what left him truly rankled was the theft of a suit.
In her desire for money, the man’s relative even pawned the suit he had hoped to wear to his final resting place. Though its cost was dwarfed by the monetary value of his other stolen possessions, the suit was of deep personal value to the man as he navigated the twilight of his life.
“He had gotten rid of his dress clothes and saved this one suit he wanted to be buried in,” recalled Lisa Gerritse, a senior victim-witness advocate at the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office.
Elderly crime victims – especially those victimized by a relative – often become distrustful, explained Art Mason, director of the elder abuse prevention program of Lifespan, an agency that helps older adults take on life challenges.
“With so many of our older victims, trust has been taken away,” Mason said. “They look around and say, ‘If you can’t trust family, who can you trust?’”
Lisa Gerritse, Senior-Victim Witness Advocate, Monroe County Sheriff's Office
That’s where Gerritse helps. Her advocate’s position is funded through the state Office of Victim Services and located within the sheriff’s office, so she’s in a unique position to have contact and cultivate relationships with victims as they encounter the criminal justice system.
“Having somebody walk into the room that they recognize that is only there for them –not for any other purpose, not for any other service,” she said. “You can sometimes just see the relief come over them. She’s here for me and she’s only here for me.... It is my job and my job only to make that victim of that crime as comfortable as I can.”
In the case of the elderly man, Gerritse slowly gained his trust by explaining the legal process and more importantly to him, letting him know he could be reimbursed for his suit. She knew OVS provided compensation to innocent victims of crime and believed the man might fit the criteria.
Since its creation in 1966, the Office of Victim Services has provided substantial financial relief to victims of crime and their families for a wide variety of expenses related to the crime. Among those expenses is the cost to repair or replace items of essential personal property.
“We were able to get him the funds to purchase a new suit,” she recalled.
But Mason knows Gerritse did much more than that.
“The wonderful thing about [this case] is that I think what Lisa was able to do, as the advocate, is gain his trust again,” Mason said.
Art Mason, Elder Abuse Program Director, Lifespan
“This is a state – I think above many other states – that really acknowledges that sexual assault has severe, severe health care consequences. It’s not just a criminal justice issue, it’s a health care issue, too. I’m very proud that we have a system that supports health care institutions to do the work they should be doing but also, to give a sense of respect to rape survivors. After they were raped, do you really think a survivor wants to think about how they are going to pay for this medical exam? To me, it’s revolutionizing.”
Susan Xenarios, Director
Crime Victim Treatment Center, Mount Sinai West and St. Luke’s Hospitals
New York City
OVS directly reimburses medical providers for the cost of forensic rape exams when victims do not have access to health insurance or if they chose not to use their insurance to pay for the exams. These claims are the exception to the agency's payer of last resort rule, helping to ensure privacy of victims of sexual assault. The Crime Victims Treatment Center – created in 1977 in response to a rape that occurred in broad daylight on the Columbia University campus – was the first hospital-based program to serve sexual assault victims in New York City. Today, the agency offers crisis intervention, individual and group trauma-focused therapy, legal advocacy, complementary therapy and psychiatric consultation, all at no cost and with the goal of helping survivors heal. The Crime Victims Treatment Center is part of an OVS-funded network of victim assistance programs that provide direct services to men, women and children across New York State.
BethAnn Holzhay and Jaqueline Cardona
“I feel like I was meant to do this work, that I was meant to meet you.”
“I think our paths were meant to be crossed. It was amazing how two girls brought up differently, not too far apart in age, different cultures, just clicked … Having your support really helped me.”
BethAnn Holzhay and Jaqueline Cardona met in 1986, when Ms. Cardona survived a shooting in which two others were killed. The bullet, which pierced her left eye, narrowly missed her brain. Ms. Holzhay was advocate in the Bronx District Attorney’s Office. In the years since, they have become close friends. OVS has been there for Ms. Cardona, too, paying medical bills from the 13 surgeries necessary because of her injuries. Ms. Holzhay leads the Bronx DA’s Crime Victims Assistance Unit, which is supported by OVS.
Raini Baudendistel, Executive Director
Crime Victims Assistance Center
“There was a great deal of synergy between us and the Office of Victim Services, without question. We were all there to serve victims and support each other. And we did that…. Everyone at the state who I worked with, kept asking, ‘What do you need?’ When I answered, they made it happen. It was incredible.”
The Crime Victims Assistance Center is part of a network of community-based programs funded by OVS across the state. The agency and its staff worked hand-in-hand with OVS to help victims and survivors of a mass shooting at the American Civic Association. Thirteen people were killed, four wounded and 23 others held hostage on April 3, 2009.
Kimmi Herring, Advocate and Director
Safe Horizon’s Brooklyn Community Program
New York City
“It’s not so much about what I say, but that I can be there and truly be present for a family, to hold that family … and bear witness to their experience. If I can normalize the impact of the violence that they’ve just experienced, I think that’s the best gift I could ever give someone.”
Safe Horizon is part of a network of victim assistance programs funded by OVS that provide direct services to men, women and children across the state. The New York City-based organization touches the lives of 250,000 people annually, work that wouldn’t be possible without OVS.
Mary Whittier, Executive Director
Bivona Child Advocacy Center
“More and more kids are getting better services. They have an advocate with them throughout the entire process – that is invaluable. We would never have that without the support of OVS. We just wouldn’t.”
Bivona Child Advocacy Center received funding from OVS for the first time in 2014. The center is a safe, welcoming place where children who have been sexually or physically abused can begin their journey of healing. Bivona has served more than 15,000 children since its establishment in 2004.
Phillip Burse, Director of Operations
In Our Own Voices
“OVS is vested in our organization’s mission, as well as the needs of all crime victims. They have great concern for the needs and they are always striving to improve: what needs are being unmet, what populations are we missing, who can we reach out to, to assist us in creating change.”
In Our Own Voices was established to promote the health and well-being LGBT individuals and LGBT people of color. OVS has funded the agency since 2009, allowing it to provide advocacy and support for victims of domestic violence and other crimes.
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