Healing Their Wounds

October 12, 2011

Vito Anthony Pampalona is devoted to helping injured soldiers heal their bodies, minds, and souls and move forward with fulfilling lives.

By Kelly Quigley, REALTOR® Magazine

When U.S. soldiers are wounded in combat, their lives are forever changed, says Vito Anthony Pampalona, a longtime real estate broker and owner of Vito Anthony Homes in Rochester, Mich.

Whether they face a physical wound — such as loss of limbs or vision — or suffer from post-traumatic stress, virtually all of them face the difficult task of rebuilding their life as a civilian.

Pampalona, a Vietnam War veteran whose company builds and sells luxury homes, has spent the past eight years raising money — a total of nearly $500,000 — and giving his time to show gratitude to thousands of patients at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Although the hospital merged in 2011, Pampalona’s efforts will continue.

“When I returned home from Vietnam, people looked at veterans in an unappreciative light. They were very negative toward us,” Pampalona says. “I told myself that if we ever had another war, I was going to make sure these young people felt welcome and appreciated for the sacrifices they’d made.”

Pampalona has followed through on that promise to himself. Known affectionately as “Uncle Vito” to Walter Reed staff and patients, he has made sure that recovering soldiers have comfy workout clothes, a pantry full of healthy snacks, good movies to watch, a huge collection of books and audio books, and gifts galore at an annual Christmas party that has become the highlight of the year for patients and their families.

Pampalona even raises money for baseball-game outings and airline tickets so the soldiers’ loved ones can visit more often. And when those family members arrive, he helps arrange complimentary rental cars and lodging. “I try to fill the void in what the government is providing,” he says.

Marine Corps Sgt. Tim Lang came home from Iraq with a fractured vertebrae and missing his right leg. He met Pampalona in 2007 while recovering at Walter Reed. “He treated me like I was a piece of gold,” says Lang, 26, who’s now retired from the military and lives in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Pampalona still keeps in touch with Lang, providing career advice, sending basketball tickets, and inviting him to participate in golf tournaments. “He’s a friend first and foremost, but he’s also a great mentor,” Lang says.

Turning Passion into Action

Pampalona’s charity efforts at Walter Reed began in late 2002, when he came across an article in the Detroit Free Press written by Kate Yankosek, a U.S. Army major who was then stationed at the medical center as an occupational therapist. Pampalona was looking for something he could do help soldiers returning from the Iraq war, so he gave Yankosek a call. “At first she was a little apprehensive,” Pampalona laughs, “I had to assure her I wasn’t a weirdo.”

Through the conversation, he began to see some ways he could help: He learned that the soldiers had been asking for better snacks at the therapy clinic and that many of the men and women had to wear drab open-backed hospital gowns, even during workouts. “They go from the battlefield to Walter Reed within a 24-hour time frame, so they don’t have anything to wear,” Pampalona says.

Days later, boxes of Slim Jims, granola bars, and other snacks arrived at the hospital — enough to fill an entire pantry. Then, through a discount Pampalona negotiated with an Adidas outlet in Michigan, he began supplying athletic gear, including shorts, t-shirts, long-sleeved shirts, and hoodies, all sized appropriately for each soldier.

The generosity has translated into a quality-of-life improvement for soldiers and a morale booster for staff and patients alike, Yankosek says. “When Vito would call the clinic to ensure that the latest package had arrived, we would pass the phone around taking turns talking with him,” just as if he were a real uncle, she says.

After about a year of sending packages, Pampalona worked with hospital staff to plan what has become his signature event, Uncle Vito’s Christmas Party. “He left no detail unattended,” Yankosek recalls of the first party in 2003. Since that time, the event — with pizza, raffles, and fancy gifts such as watches and electric toothbrushes — has doubled in size to more 200 soldiers and family.

“You could tell he spent some money — and put his heart in it too,” says Lang, who recalls receiving a Detroit Pistons T-shirt, athletic shorts, CDs, videos, and a nice backpack at his first Christmas party hosted by Pampalona. “Everything in the bag was something we absolutely loved.”

Pampalona, who flies into town with his wife for the event, makes sure that attending spouses and staff get presents, too. “For those four or five hours, everyone feels normal,” he says of the annual party. “If I can make them smile for one hour or one day, that’s worth more to me than anything.”

Making a Bigger Impact

No longer relying solely on out-of-pocket dollars for the Christmas party and other efforts, as he did in the beginning, Pampalona has teamed up with the Yellow Ribbon Fund Inc., an organization in Bethesda, Md., for which he’s a founding board member. Most recently, Pampalona raised more than $73,000 for the Annual Yellow Ribbon Fund Golf Outing last summer at a country club in Rochester, Mich.

He also recruits help from volunteers in his hometown to fill hundreds of Adidas backpacks with Christmas goodies for the soldiers, and in 2009 he teamed up with the charitable group Homes for Our Troops, based in Taunton, Mass., to build a specially adapted home for an Iraq war veteran in Macomb Township, Mich., who lost both his legs above the knee.

“Vito doesn’t do anything halfway,” says Robert Taylor, a practitioner with Coldwell Banker Weir Manuel in Birmingham, Mich., who was hired into real estate by Pampalona in 1974. “Everything he does, he does to the best of his ability. For him, 100 percent is standard operating procedure.”

In September, the Walter Reed hospital was combined with Bethesda National Naval Medical Center to create the U.S. military’s largest medical facility. Pampalona now has even more soldiers who will be calling him “Uncle Vito.”

“They are so brave and dedicated, and they’re really working hard to get on with their lives,” Pampalona says of the men and woman who are recovering at the newly created Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. “Being a part of that is very special for me.”
 


 

Contact Vito Pampalona at Vito Anthony Homes, vito@vitoanthony.com, and the Yellow Ribbon Fund at www.yellowribbonfund.org.
 


 

Vito Pampalona is one of 10 finalists for REALTOR® Magazine's Good Neighbor Awards, a grant program that recognizes REALTORS® who make exceptional volunteer contributions to their communities. We’ll bring you the story of one of the finalists each day until October 20. On October 21, online voting will open for a Web Choice Award. The top vote getter will receive a $500 gift card from Lowe's. Votes will be accepted through October 28. 

Of the 10 Good Neighbor finalists, the five winners will be named on November 2. (Web Choice voting does not play a role in the selection of the winners.) The winners will receive $10,000 grants for their community projects and $2,500 Lowe's gift cards and will be honored at the REALTORS® Conference & Expo in Anaheim on November 12. The remaining five finalists will receive $2,500 grants for their cause and $1,000 Lowe's gift cards.

The Good Neighbor Awards is supported by Lowe’s and HouseLogic.
 


 

Read Other Published Profiles of the 2011 Finalists: