Corner House Executive Director DeBlasio Retiring After 21 Years
END OF AN ERA: Gary DeBlasio, who has headed Corner House Behavioral Health since 2000, is retiring at the end of September. He is pictured, fourth from left, at a recent event with the Polanco brothers, who have participated in Corner House programs, and former Corner House Foundation Board President Mandy Triolo.
By Anne Levin
On September 30, Gary DeBlasio will put in his last day as executive director of Corner House. DeBlasio, 66, is retiring after two decades guiding the organization, which prevents and treats addiction, primarily in youth, and supports those in recovery.
“You just reach a point in your career where you know it’s time,” he said during an interview at his office in Monument Hall. “I have done this work for 44 years. It’s time for new energy, new blood, and new ideas.”
Judging by comments from people who have worked closely with DeBlasio over the last two decades, his absence will be keenly felt. “Gary has been an incredible life force,” said Wendy Jolley, who chairs the Corner House Board of Directors. “He has, literally, saved hundreds of lives over the years. He has mentored so many kids. Everybody looks up to him. He really sets the gold standard.”
“The town is losing a giant when it comes to dealing with youth and folks that have addiction problems,” said Lance Liverman, who was liaison to Corner House during his years on Princeton Council and the former Township Committee. “I have been involved in Corner House for years, and I can tell you he has really built that organization to where it is today. He’s understanding and all-encompassing. He includes everyone. The main thing is that he cares. I wish him the best. I know it’s going to be a huge loss.”
Dr. Maritoni Shah, who chairs the Corner House Foundation Board, said, “It’s a bittersweet departure. If there is anybody deserving of retirement, it would be Gary. I think I speak for the whole board in wishing Gary safe travels, good luck, and please don’t ride off into the sunset. On a personal level, I think he is humble, easy to work with, and a good communicator. I’m going to miss him.”
DeBlasio came to Corner House after working in mental health and substance abuse in Wisconsin and California. A native of Hackensack who now lives in Manahawkin, he decided to come back to New Jersey at the urging of his 3-year-old nephew.
“He asked, ‘Why don’t you visit me?’ And that was the beginning of me moving back to New Jersey,” DeBlasio said. “I love my nieces and nephews. My parents were aging. I’m very close to my family, so it just seemed right. That nephew, by the way, is now a 25-year-old jazz musician who performed at our last benefit.”
When DeBlasio arrived in 2001, he assessed the existing Corner House programs. “They had TAG (Teen Advisory Group) and WOWY (World of Work for Youth), and I saw how impactful they were,” he said. “Kids were competing to try out for TAG, which was the first leadership program. So I expanded it.”
DeBlasio added the Corner House Student Board and Project GAIA (Growing Up Accepted as an Individual in America), “which dealt with racism, sexism — all the isms,” he said. Next was the Student Leadership Institute, made up of 90 teens in three groups that attend a summer retreat to discuss racism, sexual abuse, addiction, and other issues. They also meet weekly in the fall to prepare workshops for kids, parents, and the general community.
“So they really begin having an impact,” DeBlasio said. “So many of them will say, when we interview them, ‘I’ve wanted to be in TAG or GAIA since I was a kid.’ Now, we have kids who took part, and graduated from college and came back to work with us. Some of them now serve on our boards.”
Outreach programs shepherded by DeBlasio include WOWY, the Princeton Youth Project (PYP), and the Advocacy for Youth Project. “They are designed to equalize the playing field in Princeton so everyone can have the same opportunities,” he said. “When there were gang issues in town, [the town] wanted to bring people in. But I said let us handle it, and we started the Princeton Youth Project, which gave young men the opportunities to feel like they were being heard. We saw that kids wanted to improve. Now, over 95 percent of them go on to further their educations, the military, or trade school. We encourage them to come back and serve the community.”
Corner House also runs programs for middle school students, and clinical programs for treatment of addiction. “What I’m most proud of is that I’ve kept Corner House relevant,” DeBlasio said. “We’re known as one of the top programs around. I’m committed to the training of professionals in this field.”
Retirement for DeBlasio won’t be 100 percent. “For the first three months, I will decompress,” he said. “I’ll do some gardening, take some trips. But then I’ll do some consulting, and take some classes. I’m particularly interested in thanatology [the scientific study of death and dying]. I will also have time to explore some Ph.D. programs.”
DeBlasio has been especially pleased when students return to Corner House after college, and want to maintain a connection. Some have become engineers, some are lawyers, others are in a variety of fields. “It tells me we have impacted the lives of tens of thousands of students in Princeton,” he said. “They want to give back. And that makes me proud.”