By Michael Ares
One afternoon in June fifteen years ago, St. Francis Medical Center told Stephanie Alys Bussi to go home from her job there as an occupational therapist. She had just been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, only one month shy of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
“They told her, when you can walk again, then you can come back,” said her daughter Kathy Bussi. “That is so wrong, and that’s what sparked something in her [to help people with disabilities].”
The well-known Long Beach advocate for people with disabilities, affordable housing, and other causes passed away on December 28, 2014, at the age of 74, after combatting multiple sclerosis and congestive heart failure. According to her son Kevin, her commitment to community service persisted until her last days, when she yearned to leave the hospital to volunteer at a community center, which held an annual Christmas breakfast.
A memorial service was held on Jan. 2 at Temple Israel, where she attended for 18 years.
Cynde Soto, Housing Long Beach’s Board President, recalled how she and Bussi worked together to improve public transportation for people with disabilities in Long Beach for 25 years. They advocated for more spaces for wheelchair users in metro trains, as well as improved communication with metro employees, drivers and rail operators.
Bussi was involved with many local and national organizations, including the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, Californians for Disability Rights, and the METRO Accessibility Advisory Committee. Besides working for disability rights, Bussi was a champion for affordable housing, homeless services, and public transportation.
“She fought for things that did not affect her, like affordable housing,” said Soto, who noted that Bussi would educate renters about their housing rights in the city. “She didn’t need it, but she saw the injustice and inequality of the people who didn’t have what they needed.”
In Bussi’s honor, Housing Long Beach has begun awarding the “Stephanie Bussi Community Service Award,” which honors a community member who volunteers for affordable housing issues.
Bussi was born on June 30, 1940 in New York City and grew up in Riverdale, a neighborhood in the Bronx. After meeting her future husband August Bussi, 73, in summer school, the couple married on June 24, 1959.
After the birth of their first son Millard, the family moved to Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, N.C., where August served in the U.S. Marine Corps and their second child, Kathy, was born.
August was then stationed in Yuma, Arizona, where the Bussi’s youngest son, Kevin, was born. Bussi and her husband eventually landed in Long Beach in 1988 to stay close to their son Kevin’s child.
Bussi then began working at St. Francis Medical Center as an occupational therapist, where she used her inventive outlook to develop equipment to improve her patients’ lives.
“She was a very creative person, coming up with all kinds of adaptive equipment,” said her daughter Kathy Bussi. “Little did we know she would use her skills she learned for herself.”
According to her son Kevin Bussi, one of her most creative inventions was a piece of equipment designed to help patients put socks on. The patient would sit on a chair, and put their foot inside of a tube, which was held inside of a sleeve. At the bottom of the sleeve was a cup shaped opening which would have the sock overlapped on top of it. The patient could then slide their foot in and simply pull the socks upwards.
“She showed the resilience of human nature, to never take no for an answer,” said her son. “She always showed energy in her life, I don’t know how she did it; [it] must have been a gift from God.”
Bussi’s innovative spirit and passion for advocating for her community spread from her job as an occupational therapist to her work as organizer and activist.
Local housing and disability rights advocate Josh Butler recalled his first project with Bussi, in 2006, when they campaigned for a housing trust fund that would go towards affordable housing and programs for Long Beach’s poorest residents.
“She came in from her experience working with Californians with Disabilities Rights, and rallied that community around the issue of affordable housing and established the trust fund,” said Butler, who remembered how Bussi got the disabilities community to pledge their support for affordable housing advocacy, building a bridge that was pivotal in getting the fund established.
Bussi’s perseverance and commitment showed on another campaign she worked on, a fight against the city’s Downtown Community Plan in 2011, which Housing Long Beach feared would drive low-income families out of the downtown area.
“She was a bulldog,” said Soto as she recalled Bussi’s work on the campaign. “She could put her foot down, but was never vulgar about it. She meant business.”
Soto recalled an incident where Bussi led a group of activists to then City Councilman Robert Garcia’s home, where they hoped to speak with him about the Downtown Community Plan. As Housing Long Beach stood outside, Garcia’s neighbors grew angry, telling Bussi and her group that they did not belong there.
“Stephanie stood up for all of us against them, saying that we had a constitutional right to be there and that what the city was planning on doing was wrong,” Soto said. The new plan was eventually launched, but Bussi’s positive outlook and persistence made an impression on those who worked alongside her.
Stephanie was not only able to ease the hearts of her coworkers in the work field, but was also able to help her co-workers on a personal level, “When my sister passed away,” said Soto, “she was a very big support for me and helped keep me from depression by being a good listener and giving me advice. I was able to call her up anytime, she was a good friend.”
Bussi is survived by her husband August, sons Millard and Kevin, daughter Kathy, and grandchildren Kevin Earl Bussi and August Bussi-Smith.