By Michelle Hughes
My kids love superheroes. From the Avengers to Guardians of the Galaxy, our family has spent hours watching comic book heroes save the world from disaster and catastrophe, using their superpowers to conquer some nefarious villain and fight for justice.
But my favorite superhero isn’t Batman or Captain America or even Wonder Woman (although, for the record, I love Wonder Woman). My favorite superhero is an unassuming gentleman currently sitting three doors down the hallway from my office. My favorite superhero battles for kids and his name is Tom Vitaglione.
For those of you who know Tom V. (as he is widely called), you know exactly why he is my favorite superhero. If you are a child advocate, he is probably your favorite superhero, too. But for those of you who don’t know Tom V., let me tell you why he’s a superhero.
Tom V. has been fighting for children for more than 50 years. He has been involved in advancing so many major pieces of child health policy that were I to describe them all here you would still be reading this blog days from now. Tom helped design and implement the state Child Health Insurance Program, which provides health insurance to over 225,000 children statewide; he led the effort to establish the graduated drivers license, which has resulted in fewer teen car accidents; and, he has been at the forefront of our state’s effort to reduce our infant mortality rate, which was the highest in the nation nearly 30 years ago. In every one of these policy actions, Tom has been at the table—a steady, grounded, expert and compelling voice speaking about the needs of our children and how we can best meet those needs through evidence-based policymaking.
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 V. pushed forward.
And while these policy wins for children absolutely put Tom V. on my superhero list, it is how Tom V. goes about his work every day that puts him at the very, very top of my list (even beating out Wonder Woman). In a world where important policy debates deteriorate into vitriolic exchanges and personal attacks, Tom V.’s advocacy work for children stands apart.
It is an approach defined by respect for differing opinions, and the recognition that those differing opinions need to be heard, understood, and taken into consideration in the policy making process. It is an approach infused with humility, a desire to take on policy challenges big and small because it is the right thing to do for kids, not because it brings any personal recognition or rewards.
For those of us who have seen Tom V. in action, it is an approach marked by unwavering persistence. When told by the state legislature that it would not take on the issue of banning corporal punishment in schools, Tom V. was undeterred. Tom decided that he would persuade every county in the state to ban the practice. For years, Tom has written letters, called school board members, published articles in local newspapers, and released annual reports. As a result, only two counties in the state still hit kids as a form of punishment. You shouldn’t be surprised when I tell you that Tom is still doggedly working to get those last two holdouts to ban the practice for good.
Tom V. has “retired” multiple times. Yet, every day, he is at the legislature or meeting with state officials or convening a group of advocates as our volunteer Senior Fellow for Health and Safety.
On August 20th, Tom V. will be awarded the Child Health Advocacy Award by the American Academy of Pediatrics, a prestigious award offered to only one advocate in the country each year. This is a tremendous recognition of Tom’s powerful work for child health in North Carolina. We are so incredibly proud of him, and so very honored to call him our colleague and our friend. Congratulations, Tom V. Thanks for being a superhero for North Carolina’s kids.