Having a sense of community has always been important to Tom Vitaglione. The longtime children’s health advocate fondly recalls growing up in an Italian enclave in Queens, NY. "There was a general understanding that you helped people," says Vitaglione, whose grandparents were among the initial wave of Italian immigrants flocking to the country. As was the practice with many neighboring homes, he says, new immigrants "would often live at our house" until they could fend for themselves.
This basic understanding of community service has guided Vitaglione throughout his career. For three decades, the Raleigh resident has worked in the public health arena providing essential services to those who need them most: children. As a recent and former chief of the Children and Youth Section of the Division of Women’s and Children’s Health, Vitaglione supervised all health programs for the state’s youth, including a wide range of preventative and specialized services. He was instrumental in promoting and bringing about the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which has provided access to quality health care for thousands of the state’s children.
Since retiring from the division in April of last year, Vitaglione’s efforts on behalf of children have not skipped a beat. As a Senior Fellow at the North Carolina Child Advocacy Institute (NCCAI), and as a co-chair of the legislature-commissioned Child Fatality Task Force, he has spoken out on a large number of health-related issues concerning youth. Recent examples include his ongoing editorials in the state’s largest newspapers pushing for better access to health care for poor and immigrant children, and for the passage of the Infant Homicide Prevention Act. In a letter published by the News & Observer in April, Vitaglione outlines the rationale behind the proposed legislation:
In this bill, we seek to provide additional options for mothers who for any reason have an irrational inclination to rid themselves of their newborns. By allowing such mothers anonymity in placing their infants in the arms of a responsible adult, the task force is seeking to save lives… It is time for North Carolina to join the growing list of states offering an alternative to prevent the deaths of innocent, nameless infants.
"He’s always in the know," says Jennifer Tolle, executive director of Prevent Child Abuse NC. Tolle first met Vitaglione eight years ago when her organization collaborated with his department in an effort to bring intensive home visitation programs — a mechanism aimed at curbing abuse — to the state. She marvels at his "amazing ability to be aware of everything" regarding health policy and child welfare, while maintaining "a clear vision of where we need to go." A few years back, Tolle’s organization recognized Vitaglione’s vision by awarding him the Donna Stone Memorial Award, an honor given to outstanding advocates in the field of child abuse prevention.
But while speaking out and working on behalf of children has become second nature to Tom Vitaglione action children NC, taking credit for his accomplishments has not. The low-key advocate sums up his distinguished work for child health and welfare merely by taking pride in the fact that there are now institutions, like CHIP, in place that "weren’t there before I got there."
Getting there is a story in itself. In the fall of 1964, a year after receiving a BA in economics from New York’s Hofstra University, Vitaglione volunteered for the Peace Corps and was sent to the newly-independent African country of Malawi. His primary duty was to provide technical assistance to Malawians regarding the growth and marketing of a variety of crops. Vitaglione lived in the poverty-stricken nation for two years. "It was a watershed experience for me," he says, noting that the region’s unstable food supply and lack of irrigation projects introduced him to "a survival mentality. I came to grips with the fundamental differences in resources between the United States and other countries."
Despite the region’s extreme poverty, Vitaglione loved the experience and the people in Malawi. He also found love there as he met and subsequently married a fellow Peace Corps volunteer named Eve. After the couple returned to the states, Vitaglione received a masters in public health from Columbia University and, for a year, worked with the New York City Health Department. In the fall of 1970, Eve convinced her husband to move to her native North Carolina. For Vitaglione, the move to Raleigh restored a much-needed sense of community. "In New York, the problems and bureaucracy were so big and overwhelming," he says, noting the city’s lack of close working relationships between institutions of public health. Vitaglione was "delighted to find that it was more community-oriented here." For example, he continues, "medical schools in this area were more interested in such community-health issues as indigent care" than had been the case up north.
In 1972, after excelling in the chronic disease arm of the NC Division of Health Services, Vitaglione was chosen to head the division’s Family Planning Branch. Four years later, he was selected to head the division’s Developmental Disabilities Branch. In this capacity, in addition to managing a $13 million budget and over 200 employees, Vitaglione supervised five statewide programs geared toward the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of developmental disabilities in children. He ran the branch for 13 years, before assuming the leadership of the Children and Youth Section in 1990.
Though his advocacy efforts are ongoing, in retirement Vitaglione has taken time to "get more in tune with my spiritual side." During his 31-year career in public health, he admits to becoming "so immersed in my work, that there were parts of my personality I still needed to explore." This self-exploration process involves his ongoing participation in workshops on Celtic spirituality, non-denominational bible study and contemplative prayer. "It’s been wonderful," says Vitaglione. "I can remain connected with my work without feeling consumed by it."
Given his lifelong thirst for a sense of community, remaining connected to North Carolina’s children, their needs and their future is only natural for Vitaglione. "As a culture, we have to develop a better appreciation for ongoing preventative care," he insists. "We can’t keep waiting for children to get sick before we do something about it."