Charleroi native Joe Paglia lives life to the fullest in Savannah
Joe Paglia used to ride around the Mid-Mon Valley with his maternal grandmother as she performed volunteer work for churches and Meals on Wheels.
“I always wanted to be like her and thought it would be nice if I could do that kind of work for a living,” he said of his grandmother Elizabeth DiBuono. “But I was thinking, ‘What field can you help people like that?' I found out Pitt had one of the best programs in the country for social work and I went straight through.”
Paglia, 42, received his master's degree in 1994. For the past 18 years, the Charleroi native has created a modest, but rewarding, living helping others as a social worker in Savannah, Ga.
Two years after getting his post-graduate degree, Paglia had grown tired of Pittsburgh winters – and navigating the roads in snow and icy conditions. Being involved in weather-related car accidents in back-to-back winters forced the move.
“I thought, ‘You know what? I don't want to do this another winter,'” he said. “My maternal aunt (Vicki Worden) lives here in Georgia and we would visit her as kids and go to the beach. So I'm thinking, ‘Where can I move where there's no snow and I know people?'”
Savannah has proved a good landing place for Paglia, who never really cared for the pace of big city living.
“Savannah is a very old town and it's slow in that there's no rat race or major highways running through town,” he said. “It's not as small as Charleroi, but it still has that small-town feel.”
For the record, it's snowed once in Savannah since Paglia relocated. That happened in January 2010.
“I remember that well because I was watching the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics and was thinking how cool it was to see it snowing out the window,” Paglia said. “It snowed for about three hours … and it all melted about three hours later.”
After moving south in 1996, Paglia began working in hospice care, but grew weary of dealing with people dying every day.
Since then, he's worked as a psychotherapist for children and adolescents at Coastal Harbor Treatment Center, a subsidiary of Universal Health Services, and as a substance abuse counselor at Recovery Place, both in Savannah.
“I used to be out on the road and treat people in their homes and that got to me,” he admitted. “It was the conditions in which people were living and trying to give them advice on their turf they did not want to hear. It taught me to have difficult conversations with people but I needed a break. I needed an office that I could go to everyday.”
Paglia is relieved he can finally work out of a central location while helping mostly military families. Savannah is surrounded by three large military bases, including Hunter Army Airfield.
“Ever since 9-11, we've seen a lot of soldiers coming back with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and ones who've been on four of five deployments trying to readjust and reconnect with their families,” he said. “A lot of times, the children will bear the brunt of that or end up neglected.”
Paglia said one of his biggest adjustments was learning not to take his work home.
“I go to the gym a lot and sometimes overdo it, so that helps. There are times I'll come home and see a story on the news and it reminds me of one of my patients, but you can't do that to yourself,” he said. “It's not that I'm callous or cold – at work I give 110 percent.”
Paglia is also executive director of Make-A-Wish of Central and Southern Georgia in Macon and was recently honored as the co-recipient of the Hope, Strength and Joy Award at the annual Gala of the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Georgia and Alabama.
He remains single – and loving it – and has learned to live with the stigma of being an unmarried 40-something with no kids.
“I get a lot of parents who hold that fact suspect like I can't give them parenting advice, but I've dealt with it enough it doesn't bother me anymore,” he said. “I deal with enough kids during the day that I get my fill. When I get home, I only have to deal with my Bassett Hound – and he loves me unconditionally. I love women, but not enough to marry one at this point.”
And of course, the money could be better. In 2009, the social workers in Georgia made an average of $16.55 per hour.
“My priorities have changed. I'm not driven to make more money,” Paglia said. “Success used to be: ‘I've got to have this type of car and this type of house', whereas now, this is an honor that I get to be involved in people's lives in a meaningful way.”
“It's a manner of managing your money. I don't need the things I thought I'd want when I was younger,” he continued. “A car that runs and gets you where you need to go is fine.”
Paglia also earned his social worker license in February, which meant a pay increase that will allow him to eventually work independently. The ultimate goal is to have his own private practice.
“I have a five-year plan to have a self-sustained practice,” he said. “I want to get to the point where I don't have to work for anybody — just clients and patients.”
Paglia, a 1988 graduate of Charleroi Area High School, will be back home next week to visit his family and parents, Ron and Judith Paglia.
“I do miss the winters and the changing of the seasons, certain restaurants and stores and Kennywood, but it's family you miss the most,” he said. “When I come home, it's a very warm experience. It's never been like, ‘Boy this doesn't feel like home anymore.' And that hometown feeling when I get into Charleroi never leaves you.”
Rick Bruni Jr. is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-684-2635.