Growing up in central Harlem, the daughter of a single mom who worked as a housekeeper, Karabelle Pizzigati knew intimately what living in vulnerable households can mean for kids. As an adult, fighting for underprivileged youth and families became her mission.

Karabelle used to joke, said her husband, Sam Pizzigati, that she was looking forward to becoming an “outrageous old lady” — someone who could forcefully push the causes dear to her and get away with it. Karabelle never got the chance to fully inhabit that role. She died of cancer in 2015, at age 65, after a career that saw her serve as staff director of the first congressional committee devoted to children and families, public policy director for the Child Welfare League of America, and a two-term member of the Maryland State Board of Education. 

But her legacy will continue through a new $3 million gift from the Pizzigati family that will further expand opportunities for University of Maryland students who want to build careers in child and family advocacy. 

The Karabelle Pizzigati Initiative in Advocacy for Children, Youth and Families was founded in 2016 as a collaboration between the School of Public Health and School of Public Policy with an initial $2 million gift from the Pizzigati family supplemented by donations from Karabelle’s many friends and colleagues. Karabelle Pizzigati Endowed Professor Adele Robinson has led the initiative since 2017 in training professional advocates, publishing research aiding the advocacy community, and teaching UMD students the issues that vulnerable children face and how to effect change to support their families. 

The new gift will allow the Karabelle Pizzigati Initiative to expand its focus on bolstering Terps’ experiential learning through a new fellowship program, placing students in internships with relevant organizations.

This broadened initiative will be creating a cadre of young students “energized and committed to advocacy on behalf of children and youth,” said Sandra Quinn, chair of SPH’s Department of Family Science and one of the initiative’s leaders. That energy and commitment, she added, will be “something they carry forward with them no matter their career.” 

Philip Joyce, UMD’s senior associate dean of public policy and another initiative leader, pointed to the importance of firsthand experience in shaping policies. 

“It’s one thing to know what good policies might be in order to support the development of children and families and deal with issues like racial disparities,” he said. “But it’s another thing to actually understand how it is that you can work through the political system in order to get real change made.”

The gift will also support classroom learning, faculty teaching and research, and recognition for professional accomplishments by faculty and students in the field of advocacy for children, youth and families.

“Sam Pizzigati’s vision for honoring Karabelle’s legacy at the University of Maryland has brought the Schools of Public Health and Public Policy together to help address the real challenges faced by children, youth and families,” said Boris Lushniak, dean of the School of Public Health.  

Added Robert C. Orr, dean of the School of Public Policy: “Through the extraordinary generosity of Karabelle’s family and friends, we are helping generations of students realize their passion and learn the professional skills that it takes to effectively advocate for vulnerable and underserved members of our society. The Karabelle Pizzigati Initiative continues to further our campus' ‘Do Good’ mission.”

Karabelle Pizzigati, who completed her doctorate in child development at Cornell University, first connected with UMD through attending athletic events. She grew to love the university, eventually becoming president of the Terrapin Club and a member of the University of Maryland College Park Foundation Board of Trustees. Her husband called the Karabelle Pizzigati Advocacy Initiative a fitting memorial. 

“With this initiative,” Sam said, “her life’s work can continue.”