“Buffalo may have cold weather, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s the warmest place in America,” said Debra Vizzi, ’81, who has brought the City of Good Neighbors’ attitude to the Bronx in her role as president of VIP Community Services, one of the largest social service agencies of its kind in the state. “My goal is for our agency to have that warm feeling, to create an experience of family and community, to make it feel like, well, Buffalo. The feeling that someone cares can make all the difference.”
Vizzi knows. Her early childhood was spent feeling the opposite way. Shortly after birth, she was placed in foster care and bounced around to different living arrangements until she aged out of the system at 12. During that time, she often felt that no one cared about her. She often felt despair and loneliness. She often wondered what would become of her life.
But then, things changed.
“When I was 12, I moved to Manhattan to live at the Sisters of the Good Shepherd group home. They sent me to a good high school, Cathedral High,” said Vizzi. “At Cathedral, I had a wonderful, caring teacher from Buffalo who encouraged me to go away to college in a smaller city—some place that was easy to get around and some place where I could thrive. I chose Buffalo State, and that decision changed my life.”
On campus, Vizzi built relationships with peers, faculty members, and Educational Opportunity Program counselors. These relationships were solid, founded on mutual trust and respect. “I came to college with nothing. I had no one,” Vizzi recalled, “but a lot of good people at Buffalo State went out of their way to make me feel cared for. So much of my life was shaped there during a time of very difficult circumstances.”
When Vizzi accepted a work-study position with Shirley Lord, a professor in the Social Work Department, she realized that instead of burying her childhood experiences, she could use them as a motivation to help others. Upon graduation, Vizzi stayed in Buffalo to assist in the Latino community. When a job with Catholic Charities beckoned in New York City, she returned downstate to work on child welfare issues. She was making a difference, and others took notice.
“I then got a call from a headhunter about a job in the Bronx. Now, I had spent my entire life running from the Bronx, but this was an opportunity to help transform a community that was an important part of my past. I couldn’t pass it up,” said Vizzi, who earned her master’s degree and is working on her doctorate from Rutgers University.
Today, Vizzi expertly guides VIP and its $180 million annual budget. VIP offers a wide array of behavioral health and medical services, social services, housing services, and community development services in one of the poorest urban centers in America. VIP allows those with chemical dependency, mental illness, HIV infection, and health and employment needs to receive integrated holistic care through a one-stop approach.
“This is not an easy business, but it is very rewarding,” said Vizzi. “We’re not always successful, but I believe that in every case, we plant a seed. A client may not be ready to change at this very moment, but in a week, a month, or a year, their life may get better. I’m privileged to work for an organization that can say that on a bad day, we help hundreds and on a good day, thousands.”