A Golden Retriever named Lily patiently sits at the glass entryway of a red brick building tucked behind Good Samaritan Hospital in Rockland County, New York.
Lily is a specially trained therapy dog and she instinctively knows just what to do when the next troubled person arrives. She gives comfort to the physically and sexually abused and it doesn’t matter if they are young or old, male or female. Lily, and the new Spirit of Rockland Special Victims Unit in which she works, is a God-send to everyone who walks in the door.
This isn’t like the Special Victims Units you see on television. There are no officers with guns bustling about, no metal desks or low hanging florescent lights. There is nothing gritty about this SVU.
Veteran Detective Lieutenant Mary Murphy greets you at the door. She arrives for work dressed like your friendly next door neighbor and with Lily in the backseat. Patricia Gunning, a senior sex crimes prosecutor with the District Attorney’s office is also there to gently walk victims through the system and gather the evidence needed to get a conviction.
Doctors, victim advocates and Child Protective Services personnel also have space in this building.
The interior of this SVU includes walls painted in various shades of soothing pastels. There is comfortable padded furniture. Cheerful artwork featuring flowers and waterfalls dot the walls and down a carpeted hallway many rooms are outfitted with child-sized tables and chairs. Other rooms are designed to make adult victims comfortable. Some visitors are battered women, mentally or physically disabled, victims of human or sex trafficking and others are abused elders.
There is a medical exam room and next to it a beautiful bathroom complete with a private shower for victims who may need it. A sophisticated closed circuit TV system links the interview rooms with a large conference room where detectives can discreetly listen in to a traumatized victim’s answers without being intimidating. The system is also hooked up to nearby courtrooms which helps spare frightened children a trip to court.
The Spirit of Rockland is a one stop victim’s shop. The feeling you get here is one of caring, safety and a place of new beginnings.
When victims relive their nightmare for officers Lily is always nearby. When tears flow she gently places her chin on the victim’s lap. She’s there for solace, warmth and something to cuddle.
Now here’s the best part. None of this cost taxpayers a dime.
Rockland County’s District Attorney Tom Zugibe realized what his county lacked in terms of services for the most desperate so he rolled up his sleeves and went out into the community. His mission was to build the county’s first Special Victims Unit.
First, Zugibe got Sister Fran Gorsuch, the director of Community Initiatives with Bon Secours Charity at Good Samaritan Hospital to donate an under-used 32-hundred square foot building. Sister Fran did one better. She got the board to sign off on a long term, no rent agreement, plus free utilities.
“This is an extension of our mission,” she said. “We are so proud to be a part of this and have it on our campus.”
Zugibe then approached the daughter of a legislator who had just graduated with a degree in architecture. She was thrilled to volunteer to design her first project. A local decorator pitched in with a professional layout and color scheme.
To get demolition and rebuilding going the D.A. and his chief detective, Peter Modafferi, met with the local Joint Trades Council and presented their idea to several union leaders.
“The toughest contractors melted when they heard what we wanted to do,” Zugibe told me. Soon, painters, plumbers, electricians, tile setters and lots of others showed up offering help. Many were unemployed and eager to use their skills again.
They all arrived with donated supplies – toilets, wiring and lighting fixtures. A local paint store contributed, a carpet company provided flooring, the Home Depot down the street kicked in with drywall. Others contributed child sized furniture, toys and books.
The artwork that caught my eye when I visited was donated by volunteer artists at DiDi’s Art Angels, a group with the mission to “wipe out white drab walls.” Office furniture was scrounged from the county’s stash of stored items.
“We did it all for no money,” Zugibe said proudly. “And what was so rewarding? Nobody said no. Everyone we approached agreed to help.”
Visiting the Spirit of Rockland inspired me and made me remember that America is a great country filled with caring and generous people.
Right now, we’re suffering through a period of “Can’t – Do.” Our economy is in tatters, unemployment is debilitating us and there’s no great spark of hope at the end of the tunnel.
But, we are the spark. We light our own way. We are famous for making something big out of nothing much at all. Tom Zugibe and all those who donated their time, goods and elbow grease proved it by creating the Rockland County, New York Special Victims Unit.
Now, what can we do to get America rolling again?