Angus T. Drigo is ready to lead.
As the new director of the Virgin Islands Center for Disability Rights, he plans to continue the work of former director Amelia Headley LaMont, who served as an advocate for the mentally and physically challenged citizens of the territory for 25 years.
“This is one of my main goals to make sure we don’t fall behind,” said Drigo on Thursday.
LaMont resigned last week after nearly three decades in office.
“I think it’s time,” said LaMont, who added that she’s going to spend more time with the family, including her 92-year-old mother. “I think our organization is the strongest it has ever been, we have an excellent workforce and are on a solid footing.”
Lt. Gov. Tregenza Roach was a board member alongside Drigo and LaMont. He said Thursday that LaMont had fought passionately for the rights of disabled citizens and that Drigo was the ideal person to lead the center into the future.
“Amelia really held the line for a long time,” said Roach. “I really enjoyed working with her on the board. Hands-on, always looking for resources to add to our offerings, and simply being one of the absolute best spokespersons for the board and the disabled community I have ever met, so I wish her the best. “
Both Roach and LaMont said Drigo’s background in finance will help keep the center on a stable footing.
“Apart from that, I also believe that he has the necessary sensitivity to the needs and concerns of people with disabilities in our community,” said Roach. “I really think he brings a good balance to the board.”
Drigo said he wanted to help destigmatize disability and make the center “a household name” where anyone in need of help or referral can find it – and learn how to manage their own affairs independently. “
It’s important to remember, said Drigo, that “you are only one step away from being mentally or physically challenged”. “I hope that every citizen in VI can look at themselves and say, ‘This could be me.'”
Compassion for people with disabilities is key, and “in many cases these people really want to take care of themselves, they just need a little support to become more independent,” he said.
According to Drigo, the Disability Rights Center has a team of nine lawyers and attorneys whose work is funded through federal grants. The team helps clients navigate the often complex world of medical, financial and educational challenges, he said.
Drigo brings his new position to work both professionally and personally.
“I have a son who is autistic,” and more than a decade ago “we had to leave the island to get services for our son because we couldn’t get him on the island,” Drigo said of him and his wife . “So I’m really excited about providing basic services to the disabled community in the Virgin Islands.”
Drigo’s sister is also a person with special needs and his mother previously worked in the organization.
He praised LaMont’s work over the years.
“I can’t say enough about how effective it was,” he said, highlighting LaMont’s purchase of the center’s building in Frederiksted, St. Croix
After returning to the Virgin Islands, Drigo served as Chief Financial Officer for the VI Health Department from 2009 to 2016 before moving to the private sector, where he has been with the past few years. However, the focus of his career was in finance and accounting with broad managerial responsibilities.
“When I was at Health, the Medicaid program was in my office, so I have some experience dealing with the inequalities in the health system,” said Drigo.
His son Tariq is now 23 years old and lives in New York, but Drigo said his family had spent years trying to figure out how to best get services that are not available in the area.
For disabled Virgin Islands who choose to stay on the island, the choice can often mean they have difficulty finding adequate care and support – from birth.
Drigo’s family went through several trials to properly care for Tariq, who was born prematurely and in need of occupational therapy and other help.
From a lack of special educational tools in the school to identifying the necessary professionals for support services, finding the resources needed for Tariq’s early development has often been a struggle.
“We have always been proactive, but you still run into stumbling blocks,” he said.
Drigo did not anticipate this career move, but given his passion for advocacy for people with disabilities, he said he was excited to take on the new role.
LaMont said the center conducts annual in-person surveys and “the number one problem people have identified that needs more emphasis is mental health care.”
She and Drigo both cited a 2003 class action lawsuit against the VI government that resulted in a 2009 consent decree intended to provide a court-ordered solution to the Territory’s lack of mental health facilities.
With no place for residents of the Virgin Islands to get home treatment, the government spends millions each year sending the mentally ill to places like Puerto Rico and North Carolina.
“We spend a lot of money to send our citizens off the island for care. If we were better equipped to support ourselves, we would keep our hard-earned tax dollars here at home, and it would benefit the economy, it would benefit the community, ”LaMont said.
As part of the 2009 assent decree, the court asked the government to come up with a clear plan to resolve the mental health crisis. A commission of stakeholders – including the center, mental health consumers, doctors and government officials – was set up and “a plan was developed. A simple, strategic five-year plan that should have been implemented years ago but has still not got underway, ”said LaMont.
The plan was finalized and paid for under the government of Governor John de Jongh, but the government of Governor Kenneth Mapp was unable to implement it. It wasn’t immediately clear whether Governor Albert Bryan Jr., who declared a state of mental emergency in 2019 to improve services for the mentally ill, would pull through.
When asked about the status of the plan on Thursday, Roach said he was familiar with it and said, “I know there has been contributions from across the community and I think the underlying theme is a continuum of services to ensure that people don’t fall through the cracks. “
The plan dealt with “the availability of care at all levels, so surely we should look at that. Maybe it needs to be updated at this point, ”said Roach.
He said he would discuss the plan with Bryan.
Drigo, who was CFO during the de Jongh administration and therefore had the decree approving firsthand, shares LaMont’s frustration with the failure to do so.
“I plan to bring the charges and work with the government on the issue of implementation,” he said.
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