Read about Board Member Don Mitzner and his family’s dedication to ACLD’s mission that spans 5 decades.
Scottish Author Robert Louis Stevenson once said, “Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap, but the seeds you plant.” The life that Don and Gail Mitzner have cultivated with their tireless dedication to ACLD for more than 50 years is a prime example of Stevenson’s words in action. It is impossible to look at ACLD’s history and not see their name. From the Gail and Don Mitzner Adult Services Pavilion to the Gail and Don Mitzner Psychiatric Center and the countless acts of championing the organization, their family’s physical and literal impact on ACLD is tremendous.
Don and Gail Mitzner have been married for 58 years. The couple has two children, a daughter Jill and a son Alan. “We could see early on that Alan was a gifted and voracious reader but struggled with logical concepts and social interaction,” said Don of his son. Don, an engineer, working on projects such as the “Man on the Moon” mission, and his wife Gail were living in Queens at the time and quickly recognized that Alan would need support and educational resources that simply did not exist at the time. When Alan was 2 ½ years old, the Mitzner family moved to Suffolk County and joined the Suffolk chapter of the New York Association for Brain Injured Children (NYABIC). “Though they didn’t have much, they had tremendously dedicated parents,” said Don. One thing that the Suffolk NYABIC did have was a summer camp called Camp NYABIC. Don and Gail became involved with the program, and eventually, Don became President of the Board for NYABIC Suffolk in 1982, which had been renamed ACLD.
While all this transition was happening for the Mitzner family, Don was making some significant changes for himself professionally. Don began taking classes at night and eventually earned his Master’s in Engineering, followed by an MBA. This led to a career shift for Don that sent him into the cable broadcast industry in New York City. The family moved to Nassau County, and that was when Don, still President of ACLD Suffolk, attended his first meeting of ACLD Nassau. Upon hearing what their vision was for the future of the organization, Don said, “[I] realized that there was no sense in having an ACLD Nassau and an ACLD Suffolk, and so I proposed to the President of ACLD Nassau (Hal Balk) that we should merge. In those days, that was unheard of; You didn’t merge not-for-profits like that, but being a corporate guy and having bought and sold a number of companies, I figured, why not?”
In 1984 the merger was complete with a board consisting of a culmination of the two organizations Don says to have found the best, most committed people. “It was truly the best thing it could ever be because the strength of both organizations became one for the benefit of the kids we were serving,” said Don.
At this point, Don, who had made quite the name for himself in the cable broadcast industry at companies like CBS Cable, Westinghouse, Teleprompter Manhattan, and Country Music Television, decided to adopt ideas and practices from this industry and modify them to help structure the way ACLD handled day-to-day operations. “Westinghouse developed a detailed quality process and a focus on customer service. I took that quality process and brought it to ACLD [because] their focus should be on the customer, and in ACLD’s case, the customer is the people we support,” said Don.
Of course, ideas were not the only thing the Mitzners brought to the table. “From the beginning, we knew Alan would eventually need to be in permanent residential care,” recalled Gail. The development of a Residential Program was always at the top of their list. Don and Gail, along with other Board Members and staff, took to community meetings to break the negative stigma around having residential homes for the developmentally disabled in their neighborhoods. It was an uphill battle, but once the first house opened in 1974 in Nassau County, Gail said, “it all went straight up from there.”
In the mid-1980s, Don had served as Board President several times over. He saw the houses beginning to sprout up across the Island and felt it was time that ACLD as an organization had a home for itself. Don was instrumental in the purchase and development of three parcels of land on S Oyster Bay Road in Bethpage. This land eventually became ACLD’s home, thanks to the hard work, support, and dedication of many, including the Mitzners and Jerry Kramer, Alan and Ellen Spiegel, and Fay J. Lindner, to name a few. Thanks to their guidance, ACLD was able to develop and build facilities specifically designed to carry out the mission of ACLD. Of all of Don’s many professional, personal, and philanthropic accomplishments, the development of the Bethpage Campus is one that he is most proud of. “We barely had two nickels to rub together, but we made it happen,” said Don.
As a Board Member, Don feels his role is to provide a strategic vision to ensure the agency thrives and that the mission to serve continues intelligently. According to Don, ACLD currently has the key players in leadership roles to get this job done. “From Rob Ciatto to Anne Marie [Sime], Gerard [DiMuro], Kim [Leonard], and Aimee [Keegan]—they are exceptional. Knowing we have this management team helps me sleep better at night.”
When it comes to their work with ACLD, Don and Gail believe “it is never an ‘I’; It’s always a ‘we,'” said Don. Gail has been instrumental in planting seeds that have led to ACLD’s growth, such as starting the ACLD Community Trust and serving as the Chairperson from its inception in 1997 to 2021. The couple hopes that their daughter Jill and son-in-law Mark will follow in their footsteps and continue the Mitzner family’s relationship with ACLD.
Outside of ACLD, Don and Gail keep busy. Don retired from his position as President of CBS Cable in 2000. The two spend seven months of the year in Florida, where they can be found playing golf, mahjong, and bridge, and spend their evenings eating at local restaurants and going dancing. “If it ends in a ‘y’, we go out to dinner,” joked Don. Gail has been mentoring and using her many years of experience to guide a group of families in Naples, FL, looking to build up an organization to support people with disabilities, further extending ACLD’s powerful reach. The couple has two grandchildren, a grandson named Adam, who lives in California, and a granddaughter, Samantha, who graduated college in May. “We’ve built a pretty wonderful life!” said Gail.
Board Member, Champion, Parent—The roles that Don Mitzner and his family have played in ACLD’s history have been nothing short of monumental. For over five decades, their family has wholeheartedly lived their lives for ACLD’s mission to provide an enviable life to all. For Don, an enviable life means “a life that has safety, stability, fun, and meaning. It means even though you may be given different abilities and disabilities, you can still lead a rewarding life. That’s what my Alan has had in Roslyn for 35 years; something more than just existing.”