This series focuses on individuals who give to our community and make a positive impact on the lives of others. Often it is through our personal adversities that we discover who we are and transform the challenges into strength.
Tom Pietrogallo, CEO of Poverello, sat with us to talk about the good work Poverello is doing and about his journey personally and professionally. Poverello runs a wildly popular thrift store which helps fund its programs, including its food bank. Tom’s background as a social worker with an MBA makes him especially qualified to lead Poverello. Tom’s personal story and values are an inspiration, and it’s OutClique’s honor to share his wisdom, resilience, and encouragement during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Andrew Armano: As we speak, we are in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. All but essential businesses are closed. We are under a “safer at home” guideline. Every aspect of our lives has been affected. There is uncertainty about the future. Those of us of a certain age lived through the worst of the AIDS crisis. Are there insights or wisdom our generation can share with everyone now when we are all facing this shared COVID-19 pandemic?
Tom Pietrogallo: We understand how rich a single contribution to someone’s life can be. We know what a difference someone who simply leaned into our lives made. Of course, we have to protect ourselves, but that doesn’t mean we can’t find ways to lean in, to help. We have an advantage because we have lived through something that taught us lessons which can be applied now. We have a program to help people in emergency situations, so individuals, even those who might not be our core constituents, can request assistance at Intake@Poverello.org.
AA: How has the pandemic affected Poverello?
TP: We still have our food pantry open and we are offering safe ways for our clients to access nutritious food. Our thrift store is closed and we rely heavily on the income from the thrift store to fund our programs, so it is difficult.
We have had some immediate support from some of our existing relationships. AHF (AIDS Healthcare Foundation) has provided assistance. Target® has come through for us, and we have looked for ways we can help others. Poverello has space in Pompano that we realized United Way could use to help food delivery to Veterans.
AA: Have you been working with people affected by HIV/AIDS your whole career?
TP: Basically, yes. Before I was at Poverello, I was working at Care Resource, but all the way back in the beginning of my career I was in child protection and many of the people I worked with had HIV/AIDS. They were facing serious issues such as child custody arrangements or planning for their kids after they were gone. Of course, as a gay man, I also had my own thoughts about my mortality and future. So, the personal and the professional aspect of the crisis was difficult to navigate.
AA: The face of HIV/AIDS is changing. How does Poverello adapt to meet the different needs of its constituents?
TP: We have to listen to the people who need our services. Just because I am HIV positive, doesn’t mean I have the same life experiences or needs as someone else. We have to see the world through their eyes: How does it feel for someone to come into the food pantry and ask for assistance with food? That’s not an easy thing to do for a lot of people. We want to ensure their reaching out for help is not fraught with barriers and shame.
AA: What drew you to social work in the first place?
TP: I was the little kid that was a mess on the playground because if someone was hitting someone else, I would cry. It bothered me. I’ve always had that sense of deep concern and care. It’s been there since I was a small, small kid.
AA: I sense you have a spirituality within that innate compassion you have. Would you say that is true?
TP: Yes. Even as a child I was drawn to the feeling that there is a God who cares about you and wants to have a relationship with you.
AA: How do you nurture that connection? How do you prevent burn-out?
TP: When I need to take time to recharge from dealing with some really serious problems that people experience all the time, I have to find a way to let all that go. As a sensitive person I have to do this.
AA: I understand exactly what you’re talking about because, actually, I’m like that, too. I noticed that you have a Masters in Social Work and an MBA. That’s quite an accomplishment!
TP: Nobody really shows you in social work school how to create a yearly budget or how to manage the HR issues that you may have. I did the weekend MBA up at FAU. It was an amazing experience learning that aspect of what I think of as caring, the caring business.
AA: That brings us to the practical side of caring – the business administration. It’s essential.
TP: Without that you really aren’t enabled to do all of the wonderful things that you want to do.
AA: Were you raised in a religious environment?
TP: Yeah. I was raised in an evangelical home.
AA: What was that like for you growing up with that? Some fundamental religions can be pretty conservative and moralistic.
TP: My family is very loving and accepting. I didn’t really experience any of the judgmental culture until I got to a very conservative Christian college I attended, Grand Rapids Baptist College [now Cornerstone University].
AA: Was that a big culture shock?
TP: It really was. As a young kid, I guess I expected this was going to be kumbaya every day, but it really was something very different; a lot darker than that, to be honest. For me, I think mainly because I didn’t experience that growing up in it, growing up in my family and in my church. It didn’t shake me to my core or it didn’t deter me from faith. My faith came out of that unscathed.
AA: Yeah. I was raised to be careful when listening to anyone in a pulpit. It doesn’t matter whether they’re a spiritual guru, a church leader, a dean of a university, or a boss. The letter of the law that they are passing down, I look at it to be sure it’s fair, that it’s not self-serving, that it’s not too rigid.
TP: Right. Exactly. I agree with you wholeheartedly because the thing that resonates with me is thinking about loving God and then loving your neighbor. The point is to ask yourself how do you best do that? Well, from my perspective, you have to prepare yourself. You have to look at what the needs are. You have to respond appropriately.
AA: What has Poverello been able to accomplish recently that you are really excited to see come to fruition?
TP: We have embarked on a project to help people in our system who are not virally suppressed. We needed to help them navigate whatever difficulties that impacted their treatment. We just did our numbers from last year and we are at 90% viral suppression, up from 80%. We’re very proud of that.
AA: That’s fantastic. Poverello isn’t a healthcare provider. How did you achieve that?
TP: I’m very proud of what our team has been able to do. It’s not just me sitting in this office that did it. It’s the people at the front at the food pantry who have shown compassion and a willingness to talk with our clients about something that a lot of people find really difficult to talk with others in a non threatening way. When an individual is ready for assistance, he or she then feels safe talking to our staff.
AA: That’s really innovative. Circling back to where we started, the COVID-19 pandemic, you spend so much effort helping others. What can others do to help Poverello?
TP: We need funds. We need more volunteers that are willing to actually drive and do a no-touch delivery right now. If someone’s sick at home with what might be this new virus, they still don’t want to infect someone else. We really need people and we need resources.
AA: Thank you for all that you do for others. It’s been inspirational to speak with you.
TP: Thank you for helping us get the word out about Poverello.