Kathleen Lukens (1931-1998)

Kathleen Lukens was a pioneer in the field of mental health. She dedicated her life to dealing with human dependence. Her life’s work came out of a mother’s determination that her fourth child, David, who was born autistic, would live a life of love and promise that was available to her other children.

          But it was the early 1960s, when developmentally disabled people were locked away and talked about in hushed tones. Existing facilities were impersonal, overcrowded, and understaffed. As David grew up, Lukens became incensed by the social and educational exclusion he and others experienced. She set out to change that, starting a social revolution in Rockland County and fighting for those who could not fight for themselves. She spoke publicly and worked to reform a health care system that was not working.

          Venture was her answer. Lukens was elected head of the Exceptional Child PTA, a pressure group of parents seeking education for their excluded children; Camp Venture grew out of this group of concerned parents. The summer camp was open to all children, regardless of their condition or ability to pay. Nothing like it existed in Rockland.

          But for Lukens a summer camp was not enough. Children and adults with special needs were being denied the high-quality daily care they needed and deserved. Lukens was quite outspoken on the issue, once confronting Governor Nelson Rockefeller at a press conference and embarrassing him into providing state funds to relieve staff shortages at Letchworth Village.

          With the help of the Camp Venture group, Lukens and Legislator John Murphy developed Venture Inn, a community residence for special–needs adults. It was the first of its kind. Over the years, Venture has opened several more homes throughout the county. Despite changing attitudes about the developmentally disabled, each new facility continues to be a struggle to open. Neighborhoods are reluctant to have such a home in their area. But each one has gained acceptance over time.

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