Angus T. Drigo is ready to lead.

As the new executive director of the Disability Rights Center of the Virgin Islands, he said he plans to carry on the work of the former director, Amelia Headley LaMont, who for 25 years served as an advocate for the territory’s mentally and physically disabled citizens.

“That’s one of my main goals, to make sure that we don’t regress from where she’s put us,” Drigo said Thursday.

LaMont stepped down last week after nearly three decades on the job.

“I think it’s time,” said LaMont, who added that she’s leaving to spend more time with family, including her 92-year-old mother. “I think our organization is the strongest it’s ever been, we’ve got an excellent complement of staff and we’re on solid footing.”

Lt. Gov. Tregenza Roach has served as a board member alongside Drigo and LaMont. He said Thursday that LaMont has fought passionately for disabled citizens’ rights, and Drigo is the ideal person to lead the Center into the future.

“Amelia really held the fort for quite a long time,” said Roach. “I thoroughly enjoyed working with her on the board. Hands-on, always looking out for resources to supplement what we were able to provide, and just being one of the absolute best spokespersons for the board and the disabled community that I think I have ever encountered, so I wish her the best.”

Both Roach and LaMont said Drigo’s background in finance will help keep the Center on stable footing.

“That being said, I also believe he has the requisite sensitivity to the needs and concerns of people who have disabilities in our community,” Roach said. “I really think he brings a good balance to the board.”

Destigmatizing disability

Drigo said he wants to help destigmatize disability and make the Center “a household name,” where everyone who needs assistance or a referral can find it — and learn how to manage their own affairs independently.”

It’s important to remember, Drigo said, that “you are one step away from being disabled,” whether mentally or physically. “I’m hoping that every citizen in the V.I. can look at themselves and say, ‘This could be me.’”

Compassion for those with disabilities is key, and “in many instances those folks really want to look after themselves, they just need a little bit of assistance to help them be more independent,” he said.

According to Drigo, the Disability Rights Center has a nine-member team of advocates and attorneys whose work is funded via federal grants. The team helps clients navigate the often-complex world of medical, financial, and educational challenges, he said.

Drigo brings both a professional and personal advocacy to his new position.

“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 it on island,” Drigo said of him and his wife. “As a result I am really passionate about the provision of essential services for the disability community in the Virgin Islands.”

Drigo’s sister is also a person with special needs, and his mother previously served with the organization.

He praised LaMont’s work over the years.

“I cannot say enough about how effective she has been,” he said, highlighting LaMont’s purchase of the building that houses the Center in Frederiksted, St. Croix

After returning to the Virgin Islands, Drigo served as chief financial officer for the V.I. Health Department from 2009 to 2016 before turning to the private sector where he has worked for the last several years. The main thrust of his career, however, has been in finance and accounting with broad management responsibility.

“When I was at Health, the Medicaid program was under my office, so I have some experience in dealing with the disparity in the health care system,” Drigo said.

His son Tariq is now 23 years old and lives in New York, but Drigo said his family spent years trying to figure out the best way for him to receive services not available in the territory.

Barriers to care

For disabled Virgin Islanders who choose to remain on island, the choice can often mean struggling to find appropriate care and support —starting from birth.

Drigo’s family went through several ordeals obtaining proper care for Tariq, who was born premature and required occupational therapy and other assistance.

From a shortage of special education aids at school to identifying necessary professionals for support services, it was often a struggle to obtain the resources needed for Tariq’s early development.

“We were always proactive with that, but even so, you find that you meet stumbling blocks,” he said.

Drigo did not foresee this career move, but given his passion for disability advocacy, he said he’s excited about taking on the new role.

LaMont said the Center does annual in-person surveys and that “the No. 1 issue people have identified that there needs to be greater emphasis on is mental health care services.”

She and Drigo both cited a 2003 class action lawsuit against the V.I. government that resulted in a 2009 consent decree, which was intended to provide a court-ordered solution to the territory’s lack of mental health treatment facilities.

Because there’s nowhere for Virgin Islanders to receive treatment at home, the government spends millions a year sending mental health patient to places like Puerto Rico and North Carolina.

“We spend a lot of money sending our citizens off-island for care. If we were better equipped to take care of our own, we would be keeping 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 consent decree, the court ordered the government to come up with a clear plan to solve the mental health crisis. A commission of stakeholders — including the Center, mental health consumers, doctors, and government representatives — was created and “a plan was developed. A simple, strategic, five-year plan that should have been implemented years ago, that still hasn’t gotten off the ground,” LaMont said.

The plan was completed and paid for under Gov. John de Jongh’s administration, but Gov. Kenneth Mapp’s administration failed to implement it. It was not immediately clear whether Gov. Albert Bryan Jr., who in 2019 declared a mental health state of emergency to improve services to mental health clients, will follow through.

When asked about the status of the plan Thursday, Roach said he was familiar with it and, “I know there was input from across the community, and I think the undergirding theme in it is a continuum of services to make sure people didn’t fall through the cracks.”

The plan addressed “the availability of care at all levels, so it’s certainly something that we should look at. Maybe it needs some kind of updating at this point,” Roach said.

He said he would discuss the plan with Bryan.

Drigo, who was CFO during the de Jongh administration and therefore had firsthand knowledge of the consent decree, shares LaMont’s frustration over the failure to implement it.

“I plan to pick up the charge and work with the government on the issue of implementation,” he said.

— Contact Suzanne Carlson at 340-714-9122 or email scarlson@dailynews.vi.