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The Community Foundation of Westmoreland County helped fund the search that led to Rob Hamilton becoming the first human services director in Westmoreland County. He says he’s eager to grow along with the role that requires him to manage and coordinate what previously were five county human services agencies. An avid learner, he is working toward a Ph.D. in instructional management and leadership at Robert Morris University.

Image by Joshua Franzos

Synchronized Services

New Westmoreland County Human Services Department leader discusses what led him there
by Ervin Dyer

In 2022, the Westmoreland County commissioners hired their first human services director. The Community Foundation of Westmoreland County helped fund the search, which resulted in Rob Hamilton taking the job of coordinating human services in this large southwestern Pennsylvania county. Hamilton is a former Lower Burrell councilman and the former executive director of Veterans Place of Washington Boulevard. Pittsburgh-based writer and professor Ervin Dyer recently sat down for a conversation with Hamilton.

The transcript below has been edited for length and clarity. You can listen to a recording of the full conversation here:

Q: I want you to start by telling us a little bit about your role and responsibilities. As I understand it, you’re in charge of five departments or agencies?

Robert Hamilton: That’s right. I was hired in September of 2022. The way I like to explain it is a reorganizing of existing departments. The five departments are the Agency on Aging, the Children’s Bureau, the Behavioral Health Department and Developmental Services, Veterans Affairs, and the former Overdose Task Force, which we were able to kind of rename and rebrand and reprioritize as the Department of Community Relations and Prevention.

Q: Tell us a little bit about your career experience and the kind of work you’ve done to prepare for this role.

Hamilton: I joined the military and was a military police officer. One thing that we learned in basic training and the police academy is our job was to protect and serve. And so that really drove my moral compass in the direction of how do I continue to help others? When I exited the military and dealt with my own struggles and entered into long-term recovery, I began working with adolescents. I really got to sink my teeth into what it means to support youth in the most difficult times. To me, a leader shouldn’t be defined when times are good. That’s easy, right? It’s when times aren’t good. I was able to then work with adults. I was an elected official in Lower Burrell for four years through the pandemic, which was challenging. And then, recently, I was the executive director at Veterans Place. So I would say my background and expertise that led me here was all-encompassing. I really got to serve all the key demographics of the departments that we’re serving today in Westmoreland County.

Q: What are some of your immediate goals, and what do you see as perhaps some long-term goals?

Hamilton: I think our immediate goals are addressing the mental health crises that are plaguing the country, especially rural communities in which there’s not access to transportation or assistance to help people get to where they need to go or get the services that they need. More long-term, we want to be able to utilize all of the resources at our disposal to put together a prevention plan that represents all members of our community.

Q: When you have that kind of buy-in from the community, when they understand that they are partners with you, what difference does that make?

Hamilton: Research tells us and shows us that we have to have people at the center of what we do. And what happens is, it creates a sense of ownership. For me, growing up in poverty and not having anything, it was easy for me to disassociate with the community because I couldn’t relate. I couldn’t relate to the people who owned something or had money or didn’t have to go to Goodwill and get hand-me-downs. When we put people at the center, there’s pride, there’s dignity, there’s respect. There is a sense of belonging because it’s not just words, people are living what they’re saying.

Q: In Westmoreland County, which is very diverse, some parts are rural, some parts are urban, there’s different levels of income that make up the community — who’s vulnerable and how do you reach them?

Hamilton: My definition of vulnerable is someone who says they’re vulnerable. The experiences are vastly different, and so we have to take it on a case-by-case basis, a community-by-community basis. We rely on our communities and our partnerships to help us define what vulnerable means. But you know, I think, generically, what we can say is vulnerable people are those who are living in poverty, those who are experiencing extreme mental health crises, those who are dealing with addictions or substance abuse, those who are dealing with any type of trauma. One of the things that we talk about in mental health, and specifically in our department, is trauma begets trauma. One of the biggest things I think that we must start acknowledging is generational trauma.

Q: Earlier, you talked a little bit about an integration of services. So an integration of services combined with this sort of people-centered approach — how do you see that beginning to make a difference to address some of the generational challenges that you just mentioned?

Hamilton: One of the things that we actually just started doing through the integration is a Student Assistance Program [SAP]. It’s a program that’s designed by the state to assist children in schools who might be dealing with difficulties. For kids with things like behavioral health, addiction, absenteeism or family issues, there’s a SAP liaison. And before I came, maybe your school got their own dedicated liaison, maybe they didn’t, maybe transportation could be provided, maybe it couldn’t. What we were able to do is work with the Children’s Bureau and our Behavioral Health Department to leverage resources and provide a one-to-one ratio for every school to provide a dedicated trainer to increase management and supervision to the program.

Q: Let’s turn now to some of your personal experiences. You talk about one of your earliest memories, you’re sitting in a homeless shelter in England, and your mother is on your bed with you. She has a knife guarding against being attacked at night. That’s a rather traumatic memory. I want you to talk to us a little bit about how you got there, how you came through that and what you bring to human services because of some of what you’ve experienced.

Hamilton: My mother wasn’t from the United States. She met my father, and they moved to the States. Three of my siblings were born in England. I was born on Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri. My mother and father had their differences, we’ll say, and she felt the need to flee the United States, so we ended up in England. Well, my mother comes from poverty. So this is generational poverty. She was abused, among other things, we’ll just say that. When you live in England, and you live in public housing, you can’t have people live with you or you lose that public housing. And so we had to live in homeless shelters and halfway houses in England. I was three. My siblings were able to stay with some family, so it was me and my mom. The night before someone attacked her on my bed with me in the bed. And so the next night, I just vividly remember her sitting there holding that knife at the edge of my bed and just looking up, and all I can remember is fear. And that fear was instilled in me. When we moved to the states, we continued to live place to place. In one place outside of Johnstown, we had no running water. My mother wasn’t able to have food stamps because she wasn’t a U.S. citizen. We were lucky if we ate once a day. And that memory stays with me. And before, I used to try to run and escape through drug use and addiction, trying to hide it, but now I embrace it. I think to myself, that happened, but it doesn’t have to happen to other people.

Q: Well, we certainly want to thank you for your survival and for your viewpoint into what makes family stronger, what makes community stronger. I want to leave with this final question: You’re 35. I know you’re in school, working on your Ph.D. How is that helping you and preparing you for this role?

Hamilton: You know, I always have to say that, I alone can never do anything. But through my personal beliefs and the people I’ve worked with, I’ve had a lot of help along the way and people who’ve opened doors for me and allowed me to have access. And so, I have a responsibility to ensure that it’s not about what I do while I’m here. It’s about how I leave and ensure that the next person coming behind or the next person coming in is able to do that. And so really, how this plays a part is through education. Education was my escape from poverty. My educational journey has done a great job preparing me to assist the community in need and in transition and provide the best pathway possible.

Ervin Dyer is a writer, sociologist and senior editor with Pitt Magazine at the University of Pittsburgh.

CFWC Advisory Board Chair Jordan Pallitto and Westmoreland County Director of Human Services Rob Hamilton recognize that strengthening communities in the large county will take a cooperative effort.

Image by Joshua Franzos

Jordan Pallitto, who began public service as a youth, is the longest-serving member of the board of advisors of The Community Foundation of Westmoreland County and recently became its chair. Also the youngest member of the board, Palitto credits his mother with instilling in him a passion for service.

Image by Joshua Franzos

New Leader in Westmoreland

by Ervin Dyer

Jordan R. Pallitto grew up in the Jeannette area of Westmoreland County with his mom, dad, older brother, Adam, and a dog named Duchess.

As a boy, Pallitto thought his father, Dave, a former traveling salesman, had the coolest job ever. At one point, there was a basement full of cowboy boots, which delighted Pallitto. But it was his mom, Dini, a classroom assistant for children with special needs, who nudged her son toward his decades-long commitment to community service.

Pallitto recently became the chair of the board of advisors for The Community Foundation of Westmoreland County. Since 1995, CFWC has been making grants and aiding nonprofits, all aimed at strengthening the county and improving the lives of local residents. In 2010, it merged with The Pittsburgh Foundation to increase its reach and enhance its services to donors, nonprofit partners and the general community.

At 39, Pallitto is both one of the youngest and one of the longest-serving members of the board.

His connection to CFWC is rooted in his mother’s early efforts to sow the seeds of altruism in her children.

When Pallitto was in grade school, his mother took him and his friends along as she volunteered with diverse nonprofits across Westmoreland County. One standout for Pallitto was going every summer to the four-day Westmoreland Arts and Heritage Festival. His mom served on the board for the festival and “volunteered” her son to help with the children’s activities. As he inflated balloons, set up arts and crafts, and did what other tweens might consider to be chores, Pallitto said a “spark” was ignited in him.

“I didn’t come to understand it until later,” he says, “but I was developing a passion and an interest in the work that nonprofits around Westmoreland County do.”

As a teen, Pallitto served on a Youth Advisory Council created by CFWC. He became a member of the council along with high school students from Greensburg-Salem, Hempfield and other schools serving the 15601 ZIP code. The teens were charged with grantmaking to improve life in Westmoreland County.

That introduction to grantmaking ignited another spark in Pallitto. He continued with the council throughout high school. After his graduation from Allegheny College, he was invited to join the CFWC Board of Advisors.

It’s a role he’s managed while earning a master’s degree from Carnegie Mellon University and studying for a doctorate in business at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. In January 2022, he took over as chair, which required him to also sit on The Pittsburgh Foundation’s board.

As he settles into the role of Advisory Board chair, a reflective Pallitto says, “I will forever appreciate that CFWC brought me on as a 23-year-old.” This, he says, gave him a path to develop leadership skills.

He was already an emerging leader in the field of strategic planning and organizing. He started 17 years ago as an intern at The Hill Group, where he is now chief operating officer. He has worked with UPMC, The Forbes Funds, The Heinz Endowments and Highmark, as well as civic groups such as East Liberty Development, the Mount Washington Community Development Corp., the YWCA and Grow Pittsburgh. In 2015, Pittsburgh Magazine recognized his professional and personal accomplishments by naming him one of its “40 Under 40.”

“All my experiences are inextricably linked,” Pallitto says. “They all add up to helping organizations improve so they can be more efficient and have greater impact.”

He believes he can provide the same service to CFWC through his board chairmanship, primarily by leveraging its assets and influence to solve complex human and community problems. He hopes to help prioritize grantmaking to increase the effectiveness of organizations, enabling them to directly impact more people.

“The work has always been about leaving the community better than we found it,” he says. To do that, he plans to rely upon three pillars that have guided CFWC’s philosophy for the past 30 years:

  • Increase the numbers of local philanthropists. There are lots of people associated with philanthropy, and there are many more individuals who may not think they have the capacity to be philanthropists, but they do have time, skills and passion to devote to making their community a better place.
  • Helping organizations. CFWC makes grants to organizations and collaborates with their staff members to address challenging issues and help residents in need.
  • Strengthening community leadership. Always examining the role CFWC can play — as a foundation, as a board and as a staff — to advocate for and move the needle on certain issues in the community.

Through these priorities, Pallito says, CFWC enables vulnerable people and their communities to thrive. “And I’m proud to carry the banner forward.”

Ervin Dyer is a writer, sociologist and senior editor with Pitt Magazine at the University of Pittsburgh.