January 2003

James Totaro -
Dedicated to Helping Others


by Joseph H. Radder

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James Totaro began his adult life preparing for the priesthood. As it turned out, that wasn’t to be, but he still wanted to be of service to his fellow human beings. He has done just that, serving in jobs all the way from summer youth coordinator to his present position as president and CEO of Coordinated Care.

Coordinated Care provides numerous services throughout the eight counties of Western New York, all related to helping people get long-term care. This includes assistance to people applying for Medicaid, financial planning, networking with other community resources that address the needs of the elderly and disabled, help with New York State mandated paperwork to determine eligibility for long-term care and help for family caregivers. Community education is also an important function. This service offers presentations to interested groups on a variety of topics related to long-term care.

Jim Totaro is a Buffalo native, born here in 1948. He grew up in West Seneca.

His Dad was a millwright for the Trico Corporation. His Mom made a career out of raising seven children. Jim married Debbie Murphey in 1979. They have three adult children...Scott, Martin, and Bethany. Debbie is a nurse and works in home care.

At age one Jim contracted polio and came close to death. “I recall seeing a picture of myself walking after I had been hospitalized,” he said. Obviously, he benefited from a medical miracle not all polio victims enjoy.

He went to Winchester Elementary School and West Seneca Junior and Senior High Schools. “ I wasn’t the best student in high school,” he remembered, “but I enjoyed it. I joined every club there was.” While in high school he worked as a stock boy at the Harlem and Clinton Acme Market, and later helped a neighbor deliver groceries to rural customers.

Totaro was in the Navy and served in Viet Nam in 1967 and 1968. “I was there during the Tet offensive,” he said, “then I came back to the United States and served for two years in Rhode Island as Chaplain O’Connor’s assistant (the future Cardinal O’Connor).

It was Cardinal O’Connor who recommended the seminary. And so, within days after discharge from the Navy, Jim Totaro was on his way to Waddam’s Hall
in Ogdensburg.

“I spent two years there, and then went to Syracuse University where I got my degree in psychology, philosophy and religious studies. I was trying to be a Renaissance Man,” he laughed.

Jim then continued to study for the priesthood, this time at Pope John XXIII Seminary in Weston, Mass., a seminary that specializes in delayed vocations. “Then I went to Harvard where I was working on two degrees at the same time. But that was a mistake. I bit off more than I could chew, and soon dropped out of both Harvard and the Seminary.” While in college, Totaro painted houses and worked in the inner city as a youth counselor in the Syracuse Diocese. His first job out of college was as a summer youth counselor for the CAO in Baldwinsville, New York. He eventually returned to Western New York to get his master’s degree in counseling from Canisius College. He also did his internship in counseling at Roswell Park and later worked there and set up the adolescent ward.

Clearly, Jim Totaro has dedicated his life to serving other people. This commitment plus obvious management skills brought him to his present position as president and CEO of Coordinated Care. He is also on the board of directors of Health for All, an organization that is attempting to bring needed health care to the uninsured.

Surprisingly, perhaps, he does find time for recreation. “My wife and I love to go on weekend antiquing trips to rural areas,” he said. “When I was a kid in college,” he continued, “I used to love road trips and still do.”

Jim and Debbie live in Angola, “a great place to raise a family.” Not a city boy, even though he works downtown, Jim clearly loves the country. “I guess my real passion as a social worker was always to bring services to people in rural areas.”

Jim Totaro’s signature skill is bringing coalitions together to solve problems. “One of the first was the Southtowns Coalition that I established back in 1980 to bring all of the service providers together in the south towns of Erie County.” On the wall of Jim’s office, on the 18th floor of the Statler Towers are several awards related to this work. A recent accomplishment in coalition building has been bringing together senior providers with AIDS providers. It may be surprising to you, as it was to me, to learn that the elderly represent one of the largest new AIDS populations in the United States. Between eleven and fifteen percent of AIDS sufferers are over age 50, and many of these are over age 60, 70 and 80.How do the elderly contract AIDS? “The same way everybody else does,” Jim informed us, “having unprotected sex and sharing needles,” Apparently many elderly people who are diabetics unwisely share their insulin needles to save money. Next May, Coordinated Care will put on the first ever conference in Western New York on the elderly, AIDS and HIV.

Jim Totaro’s future plans are to work for many years to come but to plan now. On the day of our visit to his office, the stock market had just taken another dive. Like so many other people approaching their sixties, Jim Totaro is no longer sure when he’ll be able to retire. Fortunately for Western New York, he won’t be retiring soon.


Joseph H. Radder is a freelance writer.

 

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