TAMPA – Tormented by depression and thoughts of suicide, Will was in desperate need of help.
Fortunately, he had the presence of mind to seek it.
Through one-on-one counseling coupled with group therapy sessions Will, now 18, said most of the despair he once experienced is a thing of the past.
“There was zero judgment and the people that I’ve worked with have been good to me,” he said. “They’ve really helped me get my life straightened out.”
Janette, whose daughter was addicted to drugs and the grandmother of youngsters who were suffering from neglect also found solace, knowing there were therapists at Northside to guide her and the children through the emotional highs and lows.
“It was the most difficult time of my life,” said the Carrollwood resident, who is now guardian of her grandchildren.
Northside’s Gary Vitacco-Robles knows both of them and their stories.
He is the program manager for specialized treatment services and temporary assistance to needy families, or at least that is his title. In reality, he oversees a team of therapists who serve the psychological needs of children and adults.
Client referrals come mainly from primary care physicians, the state’s Child Welfare Agency, the Department of Juvenile Justice and the Department of Justice.
Vitacco-Robles said Northside also treats people who “come in off the street” and have nowhere else to go.
Parents who lack health insurance for their children may qualify for financial assistance if they are at risk of having them removed from their homes.
The nonprofit center, founded in 1976, receives federal and state funding, some of which is funneled through the Florida Department of Children & Families.
In addition to outpatient services it also provides a short-term inpatient crisis stabilization program for adults.
“Early intervention is key and Northside has a really good continuum of care,” said Vitacco-Robles, who began his career at the center 27 years ago following an internship and his graduation with a bachelor of science degree. He later return to school for his master’s degree from the University of South Florida.
Working with traumatized children is especially meaningful to him.
“I enjoy the resiliency of children, especially when you begin to see them thrive,” Vitacco-Robles said.
He recalled counseling a young boy who had witnessed a murder and was unable to speak about it. As a result, he had the child draw pictures as a means of expressing his emotions.
On the flip side, he said, some children tell him and the other therapists things they’ve never told to anyone else.
“We’re like a guide,” Vitacco-Robles said. “They are at the wheel and we are the passengers.”
He treasures the certificate of appreciation he received from the family of an 8-year-old girl who was sexually abused by her father.
He helped prepare her for when she had to testify against him in court.
“She was very frightened and I had to teach her how to relax and to overcome her fears so she could speak with strength and truth,” said Vitacco-Robles. “I don’t give myself credit because the clients do the work. But people have to know you genuinely believe in them.”
However Deborah Panariello, Northside’s director of outpatient services and Vitacco-Robles’ supervisor, said he should by no means downplay his significance.
“Gary does a phenomenal job,” she said. “He’s very well known in the community for his work in trauma with children and he’s also very well respected by our staff.”
Will and Janette also have no doubt about the positive impact Vitacco-Robles has had in their lives.
“Gary was my mentor,” Jeanette said.
“If I could say one thing about Northside I would say there should be more Garys in this world,” she said.
Joyce McKenzie can be reached at [email protected]