By Douglas J. Usiak
About 25 years ago, WNYIL, (then known as “the Western New York Independent Living Project”), entered into a joint project with Housing Options Made Easy, a mental-health-consumer-operated not-for-profit agency in Gowanda, to assist individuals residing at the Buffalo Psychiatric Center to transition back into our communities. That’s when I first encountered Richard D’Amato, (later to be known as “Doc”). Once you met him, you remembered him, as Richard had a strong deep voice, he spoke with confidence, and always posed his questions so they went straight to the point. Richard had signed up to be one of our many “Peer Support Specialists” that WNYIL was training to pass along Independent Living Skills to individuals eligible to leave the hospital and re-enter the community. That hiring began WNYIL’s relationship with Doc.
We quickly discovered that Doc was already a founding member of the peer movement for individuals with mental health disabilities in our community. In fact, he was one of the most active peers, connecting many individuals to area services and programs in the Buffalo area! He initiated, and ran for years, the Unity Club, a peer self-help support group for persons diagnosed as having Bi-polar Disorder. Doc was on the Board of Directors of the agency Action for Mental Health when it merged with WNYIL for a few years and continued on their Council, until political issues caused it to be spun off again.
Never one to let idle hours go unfilled, Doc served on countless State, Regional, and local committees to ensure that the voice of the peer was heard by those who designed and implemented government-supported mental health services in New York State. A former U.S. Marine, after his heart surgery, Doc became very active in the issues of U.S. military Veterans and began offering his time to the local Veterans Affairs Medical Center. As always, he made sure that the voices of the people who were receiving the services were heard. (This philosophy of service recipient inclusion was often expressed as “Nothing About Us Without Us”, a slogan used by Eastern European and South African disability activists in the 1990’s and popularized by authors James Charlton and David Werner.)
It’s impossible for us to measure the enormous impact that Doc’s advice, guidance, and assistance for others will ultimately have in this community, as his caring touched literally hundreds of individuals. It’s accepted that Doc was a pioneer in the “Peer Movement” here in Western New York, and now he will persist as a legend for those of us who had taken Doc’s omnipresence in every activity for granted. When individuals with mental health issues had needs, he was always there with a wealth of information, ready to help and connect them to the resources they required. And he was always glad to see you, or anyone; that’s just the way he was!
Doc, after being a vital member of the WNYIL family since 1995 and overseeing the longest running self-help support group in Buffalo history, left us, suddenly, in mid-July, while with his family in Denver. All of us in our family of advocates will greatly miss him — but we will continue to see his touch on the many individuals he empowered!
I salute you, Doc, wherever you are now – although I’m pretty sure that you’re above us, looking down. I thank you for the decades of kindness, caring, and passion that you gave to your avocation of demonstrating that people with mental health disabilities can live, work, and play in our communities, and take their places as contributing members of the general populace. Doc, I am eternally grateful for all your work in “The Three E’s”: Educating the community about your beliefs and Empowering the peers to take control of their own lives, so we all can live as Equals in our society.