Alumni Spotlight: Bill D’Aiuto ’92 ’94
For nearly 40 days, William D’Aiuto ’92 ‘94 and his team at the Department of Children and Families (DCF) worked tirelessly to help residents of 12 counties across Central Florida who had been devastated by Hurricane Irma last September.
Even before it became apparent that the monstrous hurricane was on track to directly hit Florida, D’Aiuto had readied his staff at DCF for its aftermath. In addition to its central mission to protect Florida’s most vulnerable residents, DCF was tasked by the United States Department of Agriculture to administer the Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (DSNAP), a program that provides emergency food benefits to disaster survivors.
“He is a solid leader,” said retired Marine Col. Robert Cohen. Cohen, who previously served as the senior advisor to the assistant secretary of defense – Homeland Security, and as DCF’s Deputy Secretary, was called back into action following Irma to assist DCF with the humanitarian effort.
For individuals and families who lost power or were unable to work due to the storm, the need for nutrition can become dire very quickly. DCF provided emergency food benefits to nearly three million residents in D’Aiuto’s region.
“It was as complex as any military operation,” Cohen said. “It was a military deployment without the military.”
Cohen observed D’Aiuto and many of his staff working 15-hour days during the operation. There was no job that was too small for D’Aiuto, whether it was carrying cases of water, or answering questions from his staff or the applicants for the food program.
“It was an extremely comprehensive plan,” Cohen said, and added that the main reason for the success of the recovery plan was that “Bill knows that it ain’t all about Bill. He knows that you gotta take care of your folks. No one person can do it alone.”
“We’re here to help people,” D’Aiuto said. “And if you can’t show compassion to the people you lead, then you’re in the wrong business.”
“I see him as the future secretary of DCF,” Cohen said.
D’Aiuto, who is the Central Florida managing director for DCF, has worked there for 25 years, ever since he received his bachelor’s degree in political science from UCF. He is the youngest of seven children and the first of his siblings to go to college.
His parents, John and Mary, instilled in all their children a strong work ethic, and the simple lesson to “treat others the way that you would like to be treated.” It was a lesson that stuck with D’Aiuto, even before he began rising through the DCF’s ranks.
As a DCF intake employee, D’Aiuto was acutely aware that he was seeing people at what was probably the worst time in their lives. And though he is no longer a “frontline” employee, he reaches out to his investigative team when they have worked a particularly grueling abuse case, or when they have been accosted by an angry member of the public.
And although many DCF records are kept confidential, in cases of abuse or neglect, some information can be disclosed. Sometimes, the media will reach out to D’Aiuto’s office for his comments on cases that have caught the public’s attention.
“There are some negative stories out there,” D’Aiuto acknowledged, “but we usually get a chance to respond. We have nearly 2,000 professionals throughout the region working tirelessly each day to protect our most vulnerable residents.”
D’Aiuto began ascending through the ranks at DCF at a time when the organization was under close scrutiny for its handling of the Rilya Wilson case. Wilson was a Miami foster child who disappeared under suspicious circumstances and led to the resignation of a DCF director and the passage of several reform laws.
“Bill came into his job facing turmoil and uncertainty,” said Glen Casel ’92 ‘97, president and chief executive officer of Community Based Care of Central Florida. CBCCF is the lead nonprofit organization for foster care and adoption in Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties. “With his steady leadership style, Bill has brought a sense of calm and confidence to the organization.”
“Bill is a dedicated public service leader within the Department of Children and Families,” said Naim Kapucu, professor and director of UCF’s School of Public Administration. “We are grateful to Bill for serving on the Public Administration Advisory Board and look forward to collaborating with him and the Department of Children and Families as we move to UCF Downtown next year.”
D’Aiuto said his UCF graduate education from the School of Public Administration “prepared me to lead at DCF.” The program, which included group projects, solidified his desire to lead an organization. “I left energized from my graduate program.”
In fact, D’Aiuto added, “My first promotion at DCF would not have happened without my graduate degree.”
“Bill is an exemplary leader who empowers his team to think outside the box and find innovative solutions to systems,” said Rebecca Kapusta ‘92. Kapusta is the DCF’s assistant secretary for operations (and D’Aiuto’s supervisor). “He is embedded in the community and has built relationships and partnerships to strengthen the system. He takes charge in crisis situations and is willing to do the heavy lifting in difficult situations.”
D’Aiuto said he wasn’t too involved in campus activities as a student – he commuted from Leesburg where he worked in a family-owned retail shop. The shop’s owners were more than his employers, however: They were flexible with his schedule and even assisted him with some of his college-related expenses as he worked his way through school. D’Aiuto continued working for them for nearly 10 years after he received his master’s degree in public administration.
Instilling a work ethic in their children is important for D’Aiuto and his wife, Kandice. They co-own a bakery-café the Ocala area, and they have four children who have all worked at the family business at one time or another. Magdalena, their oldest, graduated from UCF last year as a LEAD Scholar and is currently attending law school at George Mason University.
“Do I want all my kids to go here?” D’Aiuto asked. “Of course, but they tend to do what they want to do,” he added with a chuckle.
In the past several years, D’Aiuto said he has been fortunate to work with UCF on several projects, including a pilot program with the School of Social Work that gave interns a chance to earn a stipend while working at DCF. The program attracted eight students its first year, D’Aiuto said, but was temporarily halted by the Florida legislature. “We’re not giving up hope for it to be revisited,” D’Aiuto said.
“Bill D’Aiuto is a member of the School of Social Work Community Advisory Council, a group of leaders in key social service and nonprofit organizations in Central Florida,” said Bonnie Yegidis, professor and director of the School of Social Work. “Bill’s leadership in the community especially as it concerns the welfare of children and families is exemplary. He has led initiatives both in the region and statewide that has contributed to the well-being of children and has partnered with the School of Social Work and community-based agencies to that end.”
D’Aiuto also worked with UCF’s Modeling and Simulation Center to help produce online training for DCF case managers so they can practice looking for signs of danger in the home.
“It’s real-life situations,” D’Aiuto said, “but no one will be hurt if you make a mistake.”
“DCF has really changed a lot over the past 15 years,” Casel said. “Bill is a servant leader and brings comfort to the organization and its employees. He makes it look easy.”
“I love working with UCF,” D’Aiuto said. “I may not have many cool stories from when I went here, but I’m making up for it now.”
By Camille Dolan ’98