SUNY Canton will be honoring a long-time advocate for developmentally disabled people in Northern New York with the College’s Distinguished Citizen Award at its upcoming 102nd Commencement Ceremony.
Joseph Rich, the founder of the Disabled Persons Action Organization (DPAO), will be recognized along with the 2010 graduating class at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, May 22, in an outdoor ceremony adjacent to the Richard W. Miller Campus Center.
“We give this award to recognize those who have made the community a better place for everyone,” said SUNY Canton President Joseph L. Kennedy. “Joe Rich has positively influenced the North Country in many ways. I hope our graduates look at what he has done as a model for future success.”
While working at WWNY TV – 7 News in 1974, Rich received a phone call asking for the station’s help; a local boy had been accidentally shot during a hunting accident. Left paralyzed and without the ability to breathe on his own, the boy’s future was to remain in the hospital, but his family wanted to care for him.
With permission from the station, Rich orchestrated fundraisers for the family and raised enough money to put an addition on their home and install life support equipment. Rich continued his work by creating the DPAO, where he worked to raise money for the agency and brought in funding for the disabled in the community. “We wanted to help ease the stress on families in their own homes,” he said.
For over 30 years, Rich developed the DPAO from a one-man organization to a 140 staff member agency that serves more than 500 individuals. “The DPAO is a vital institution in Watertown,” said City of Watertown Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham. “He became a cultural icon by organizing concerts which raised money for the DPAO, but equally important, he provided culture and entertainment for the City.”
Many of his ideas and practices have been implemented across the state over the years, but Rich wanted to extend his work beyond New York, according to New York State Democratic Executive Committee Chair June F. O’Neill. “His accomplishments have been extraordinary and are not limited to our region,” she said. “Joe is a founding member and president of the 1 World Foundation. He travels to the West Indies to help residents with special needs.”
Hundreds of lives have been enriched through his advocacy, according to Diana Jones Ritter commissioner of the New York State Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities.
“His compassion, diplomacy and communication skills educated people in upstate New York to embrace individuals with developmental disabilities as contributing members of their communities,” she said. “He is truly the voice of the people.”
While his résumé is extensive, he insists the credit should not go to him. “I’ve been the facilitator, but it’s been the people that work with us that have made the difference,” Rich said “That’s the way it is in the North Country. People care about people.”
A Watertown native, Rich graduated from Empire State College with a Bachelor of Arts degree in broadcast journalism in 1970. He worked in both radio and television before pursuing his work with the DPAO full time. He currently resides in Watertown with his wife, Carol. Although retired, he still spends his time volunteering and serves on the Foundation Board at Jefferson Community College and is also a member of the Board of Trustees for the Watertown Savings Bank. He’s a two-time recipient of the Paul Harris Fellow from the Rotary Club and is heavily involved in the 1 World Foundation.
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