Over a long career in state government, Tom Vitaglione helped start and nurture all kinds of efforts to help children.
Whether it was screening for lead poisoning, training teen drivers or ensuring children with disabilities get a sound education, he could be found working out the details and promoting them among policymakers and the public.
But when it came time to retire in 2000, he wasn’t ready to stop helping children. Instead, he took a part time job with NC Child, where he continues to advocate on behalf of programs to boost child health and well-being.
He started as a part-time employee, but recently voluntarily quit taking a salary, though he continues to work a regular schedule.
“I feel like this is what I do,” he says. “It would be a shame to stop.”
Vitaglione traces his interest in public health back to his Peace Corps service in Malawi, where he and his wife also helped found and still work with a program to help children orphaned by AIDS.
Earlier this month, Vitaglione received the Child Health Advocate Award from the national American Academy of Pediatrics, one of the most prestigious of a long list of awards for his work.
Michelle Hughes, director of NC Child, says Vitaglione continues to benefit the state’s children, working with quiet persistence and respect for others’ views as he pushes toward his goals.
“I can’t even begin to estimate the number of children who are alive today, who are healthy today and who have grown into contributing and thriving adults because of health and safety policies that Tom pushed forward,” says Hughes, executive director of NC Child, calling Vitaglione a “steady, grounded expert and compelling voice speaking about the needs of our children.”
Impulse toward public service
Vitaglione grew up in the Queens borough of New York City, in a community he says was steeped in Italian culture.
“If you didn’t leave the neighborhood,” he says, “you never had to speak English.”
He remembers the moment when his grandmother declared that the family should adopt English in an effort to better assimilate, though he notes she was the only one who never followed the new edict.
He was the first in his family to attend college, earning his bachelor’s in economics at Hofstra University, where he graduated among the top students. He says his background made him a novelty during his college years, when he would be asked whether he had any Mafia connections.
He also felt some pressure to excel from his family.
“You know that each generation sacrificed for the next, and you wanted to do well,” he says.
He met his wife, a North Carolina native, in Malawi, where both were serving in the Peace Corps. By that time he had started his master’s degree at Columbia.
He had joined the Peace Corps after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in an impulse toward public service, which was strengthened by his time abroad. The experience also moved him away from the more theoretical study of economics to an interest in public health.
“A lot of people became more socially conscious during those years,” he says. “It was a watershed time of our lives.”
When they returned decades later to find that the AIDS epidemic had left thousands of orphans, they helped found the Malawi Children’s Village, which is still helping to place children and support their caregivers.
Vitaglione jokes that he and his wife were hardly married when she insisted they move back to her home state, and he soon found a state government job in Raleigh evaluating chronic diseases, as he had been doing in New York.
From there, Vitaglione took a job developing programs for children with special needs. For the last 15 years of his career, his focus was on helping all children.
New role, same passion
Vitaglione’s accomplishments in that vein include a hand in most major state initiatives aimed at helping children over the past several decades.
In the 1970s, he helped develop a program that made contraception available to all women across the state – an extremely controversial development at the time.
He helped develop the Child Health Insurance Program, which now insures hundreds of thousands of children, as well as the graduated license program for new drivers.
He helped implement federal requirements for educating children with special needs, and has worked toward ending corporal punishment in schools. The latter has become a personal crusade; while the state has not outlawed the practice, all but two school districts have.
Often he would have to travel across the state, meeting with local school boards and health departments to promote and implement new programs.
He also spent a lot of time speaking to legislators, including one special session on the state’s insurance program for children that lasted months.
He helped found and has served on the N.C. Child Fatality Task Force, which started as a legislative study group but has made strides in several areas of risk for children, from using car seats to ATV safety.
“Some of these things only affect a few children, but over time it has added up,” he says.
Over time, he built contacts and experience that he knew to be valuable assets for the state’s children.
“When I was retiring I thought, ‘Should I take all of this and disappear?’ ” he says. “Then I heard from NC Child.”
Among his current efforts is to change state law so that 16-year-olds are no longer tried as adults and to better protect children from dangerous chemicals in household products.
He says working for a nonprofit requires far less oversight than state government, but the overall work is similar – pushing for programs that help children, whether to state legislators, the public or other stakeholders.
I feel like this is what I do. It would be a shame to stop.
What has changed more, he says, is the atmosphere in state government; during his tenure, new programs were being built, but now, many are being downsized through budget cuts and privatization.
Some programs he’s fighting to keep or expand are maintaining Medicaid coverage, early intervention for young children with disabilities, and the lead screening program.
“We used to do a lot advocating,” he says. “Now we do a lot of defending.”
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Thomas J. Vitaglione
Born: October 1941, New York City
Awards: Child Health Advocate Award, American Academy of Pediatrics, 2016; Order of the Long Leaf Pine, 2011; Governor’s Award for Excellence in Service, 1998
Career: Senior fellow, NC Child, retired from the N.C. Division of Maternal and Child Health, where he led the Youth Section
Education: B.A. economics, Hofstra University; M.Ph. sociomedical science, Columbia University
Family: Wife Eve, children Guy and Sandro, two grandchildren
Notable: Vitaglione volunteers at a local elementary school as a reading tutor. He says he loves working with young children from other countries because it reminds him of his own youth, when he had to learn English in elementary school.