Pittsburgh Toy Lending Library

“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serous learning.”  – Mr. Rogers

I love being a dad. I’m not the primary caregiver in our home, but I do make a real effort to spend as much time as schedules will allow with my boys. Still, I’m one of the first to admit that long stretches of time at home with little kids can be hard. Like a lot of parents, I discovered early on in my fatherhood experience that both my kids and I have a lot more fun (and stay a lot more sane) if we can get out and do things.

Like many of you, I’ve walked the aisles at Target, I’ve hung out at a variety of playgrounds, and I’ve made many “special” trips to places like the Science Center or the Children’s Museum. If you are a parent of toddlers or preschoolers and you’re out there searching for another good option – one that allows for a wide variety of creative play – please allow me to introduce you to the Pittsburgh Toy Lending Library.

The Pittsburgh Toy Lending Library (PTLL), located in Shadyside, has been around since the ’70s, but I’ve discovered that even a lot of long-time Pittsburghers don’t know about it. I’d like to help change that because the PTLL is a great place for kids and caregivers alike.

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Located in a church basement, the play space has a number of different areas to encourage all the activity and healthy development that kids need. There are special sections for art projects, book reading, having a snack, and making sure that the littlest guests can safely explore and play at their own pace while the bigger kids are zooming around other areas.

With over 400 toys, the PTLL is appropriate for children from birth to age 6. There is even a kitchen with reasonably prices snacks for the little ones (but you are welcome to bring your own), coffee for caregivers, and bottled water for nursing mothers.

Your first visit to the PTLL is free.  After that you pay $5 per kid (but a max of $10 per family). And while these admission fees do support the play space, there are actually a couple of other options for really joining in on the work that makes this cooperative organization what it is.

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Membership – especially as volunteer members – is a crucial aspect of the Pittsburgh Toy Lending Library’s operation. There is actually a multi-tiered scale when it comes to membership that seeks to make membership possible for families at all different levels of financial flexibility and time availability. As a member you can opt to pay a little more and volunteer a little less, or volunteer a little more and pay a little less. Either way, as you get acquainted with the operation, you’ll see how it truly is caring and committed volunteers that make things work there.

PTLL is actually in the midst of a volunteer drive right now. The idea of “many hands make light work” is very apt here. If yo’ve never visited, I’d absolutely recommend bringing your little one along and taking advantage of all the great imaginative options for play. And once you have visited, and see what a great place it is for Pittsburgh kids and the people who love them, it might be worth considering joining in to help with work (your kids come and play while you are on your 2 hour volunteer shift).

There is a lot more information on the organization’s website, so I’d encourage you to click on the link and learn about things like hosting birthday parties, or actually borrowing a toy (it is a lending library, after all). An even better idea might be to just show up for your first free visit (or your next visit if you’ve already visited in the past). It’s a perfect place for a rainy day, a snowy, day, a hot and sweaty day, or any day you just need to get out of the house and want to make sure your little one has a safe and stimulating place to play.

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Beverly’s Birthdays

 

Can you remember any of your birthday parties from when you were growing up? For some of us, that might be a real stretch to tap that far back in our memories. But, for many of you, I imagine that there was at least one very special birthday that you can still remember – 20, 30, or 40 years later.

I remember a bowling party when I turned 8 (I think I rolled a 36), and I remember a sleepover I had when I turned 12 (don’t tell my parents, but we snuck out of the basement and roamed the neighborhood late that night). My oldest son, who turned 7 this year, plans the theme of his birthday parties for months in advance.  Kids love to have a special day where they are the reason to celebrate.

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Beverly’s Birthdays exists because this is not the reality for every child. The organization got it’s start when the founder, Megs Yunn, spoke with a little girl named Beverly who had never had a birthday party, or even a piece of birthday cake. As Megs began to look more closely at this set of circumstances, she found that Beverly wasn’t the only child in the Pittsburgh area who had never been celebrated on her birthday…not by a long shot.

This didn’t sit well with Megs, and if the support she has been able to rally in the less than six years since she founded the organization is any indication, it hasn’t set will with a number of people. In that short time, Beverly’s Birthdays has come up with 5 different programs to help local kids who are homeless and/or member of needy families experience the joy of being celebrated on their birthdays.

The first, and what is probably the largest, of those programs is the actual Birthday Parties. Beverly’s Birthdays has partnered with over 60 organizations that work with local people in need to host monthly or seasonal birthday parties for the children they are serving.  The guests are the other children connected to the organization, and everyone gets treated to food, cake, games, decorations, and treat bags; all the things that would normally be part of a kid’s birthday party.

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Additionally, the children celebrated at these parties receive birthday presents. Each package includes age and gender appropriate gifts, as well as a book and a tooth paste/tooth brush set.

While kids of all ages are eligible for a celebration, Beverly’s Birthdays realized that a lot of these families could benefit from support on the baby’s actual day of birth. Out of this realization came the Itty Bitty Birthday Cheer program, which partners with many of the same local agencies to host group baby showers that supply newborns with many essential item for the first year of life.

To round out their programs, the group has come up with two additional ways to help local kid’s celebrate. The Birthday-in-a-bag program sends a preassembled bag filled with necessary party supplies home with families that use the services of local food pantries. And the Classroom Cheer program parters with local schools that serve a majority of children below the poverty line to allow for classroom parties for the kids who learn there.

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How You Can Help

There are a wide variety of ways that a volunteer can join in on the work being done at Beverly’s Birthdays. Volunteers are needed to help host the birthday parties, bake cakes, and assemble birthday bags. Additionally, for service minded kids out there in the community, Beverly’s Birthdays has developed a really innovative program they call Champions in Cheer. In this program, applicants go through a leadership training process that help them design and implement a fundraising project for Beverly’s Birthdays.

Both financial and in-kind donations are gratefully accepted. Take a look at the current in-kind Wish List if you need some ideas for the organization’s most pressing needs, or feel free to reach out to them and discuss any number of creative ways to support this organization that spreads joy all around the Pittsburgh region.

Make-A-Wish of Greater Pennsylvania & West Virginia

I shared a little bit of my brother’s story when I did the profile on Ronald McDonald House Charities of Pittsburgh last month.  His fight with cancer also put us in the position to experience, first hand, how the Make-A-Wish organization works.

When we were first approached by a hospital social worker about the prospect of working with Make-A-Wish, we were shocked.  We were under the impression that Make-A-Wish only worked with children who were considered terminal, and while we knew that Chris’s cancer diagnosis was very serious, were were absolutely not ready to believe that it might be terminal.  Apparently this is one of the greatest misconceptions about the work that Make-A-Wish does.

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While all Make-A-Wish recipients need to be between the ages of 2-18, and need to have been diagnosed with a life-threatening medical condition, I was thrilled to learn that many beneficiaries go on to live full lives after gaining victory over their illnesses.  In fact, Make-A-Wish relies on the public to refer potential gift recipients to the program.  After communicating with the family, the organization will then look to verify the child’s eligibility through his or her physician.

My brother, like about half of the gift recipients, chose to go to Walk Disney World.  And while this trip is far and away the most popular choice for kids (Make-A-Wish and Disney have teamed up to make the trip extra-special for the kids and their families) there really are very few limits to what is possible for these kids’ special wishes.  Basically the options are broken down into five categories:

  1. I wish to go to…
  2. I wish to be…
  3. I wish to meet…
  4. I wish to have…
  5. I wish to give…

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Our local chapter, headquartered here in Pittsburgh, serves almost all of Pennsylvania and all of West Virginia.  They are quite busy.  Last year they fulfilled over 700 wishes, making them the first Make-A-Wish chapter in the world to cross that threshold. Since the chapter started up in Pittsburgh in 1983, they have fulfilled over 18,000 wishes.

Take a moment to stop and consider that number.  18,000 children, most whom were intimately acquainted with the inside of a hospital room and all the uncertainty that comes along with it.  18,000 kids whose little bodies had betrayed them in some way, shape, or form.  18,000 families who worried, prayed, and struggled, not knowing what the future would hold for their babies.  These 18,000 made a wish and had it granted.  They got to do something special. Something important. Something that allowed them and their families the opportunity to focus on something other than disease and doctors for a little while.  When medical treatment and crises have been your whole world, this sort of brief escape from reality is invaluable.

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How Can You Help?

Make-A-Wish does not receive any government funding or grants. This means they are fully dependent on private donations for the wishes that they are able to grant. Foundations and organizations do donate, but it’s still individuals who make up the largest percentage of the donations to Make-A-Wish. And, while 86% of your gift goes directly to wish-granting (it should go without saying that marketing and administrative fees are still very important), the organization even gives you the option to request that 100% of your donation goes to that end.  Beyond this, all donations remain with the local chapter. Your money will directly benefit local kids.

Make-A-Wish also has some really amazing ways to use volunteers. After some training, a volunteer can become part of a wish-granting team. These volunteers meet with families to help the ill child determine what wish will be best for him or her. After this, the volunteer continues to act as a liaison between the family and the organization throughout the process, helping to make things special for the wish child at every step along the way.

But the opportunities to help don’t end there. I’ll direct you to the chapter’s volunteer page where you can learn about a half-dozen more ways to contribute to the mission of granting wishes for kids with life-threatening illnesses.

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Wrapping it up

Since my brother did want to go to Disney Wold and enjoy the tip to it’s absolute fullest (something he tried to do with everything), he waited to take us along until his cancer was in remission (about 15 months after his initial diagnosis). He completed two major surgeries, a few rounds of chemotherapy, and ten weeks of daily radiation. By Thanksgiving of 1999 he was behaving like a normal teenager again, so that’s when we spent a fantastic week racing through the parks. Unfortunately Chris’s story wasn’t one with a happy ending.  His cancer ended up coming back and taking his life on Thanksgiving Day the following year.  But that week in Disney a year earlier was pure joy. And our memories of that week are still strong, and happy. We are truly grateful for that time we had together.

I’m sure other families have equally significant and memorable stories. In fact, I imagine there are 18,000 of them from out of the Greater Pennsylvania and West Virginia offices. I’m grateful that we have Make-A-Wish here to serve local children. They truly are a group that Betters the ‘Burgh.

 

Foster Love Project

Did you know that when children go to live with a new family for foster care placement, it is sometimes with little more than the clothes on their backs? Perhaps they had only a few minute to toss belongings into a garbage bag as they are being shuffled out the door. Rarely is there an opportunity to carefully pack a bag of their best-loved belongings and outfits before they are taken to live in a new home.

Experienced foster Mom and founder of Foster Love Project, Kelly Hughes recognized this sad fact and knew it was wrong.  Different kids will pick up on it to different degrees, but there is a unfortunate message sent when your belongings are transported via garbage bag. Her initial plan, the “project” part of Foster Love Project, was to try to do something about this (temporarily) for the agency that she had worked with when welcoming her foster children.

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The plan was simple but profound: make sure the agency was supplied with bags to accompany a child when he or she was taken to live in a new home so that they would have something special, something of their own as they began a new life in a strange place. The packing instructions were as follows: Fill a bag (diaper or duffle) or backpack with these gender and age appropriate items.

  1. Pajamas (winter and summer)
  2. A book
  3. A stuffed animal
  4. A blanket
  5. A pack of socks
  6. A toothbrush & toothpaste
  7. Body wash and a scrubber

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From the beginning, Kelly was able to collect over 1,300 bags in just two month time (after an initial goal of 300).  It was obvious that the mission had struck a chord with people. Since then, just a couple of years later, the Project has taken off in a huge way. After outgrowing her living room, Foster Love Project is now located in some office space and storage rooms at the North Way Community Church in Dormont (2865 Espy Ave, Pittsburgh, PA 15216).

Along with the number of bags, and supporters, the mission has grown as well. Now in addition to providing bags to be distributed at foster agencies around Western PA, they are also able to act as a distribution center for new or high-quality, gently-used items that foster children are likely to need. Foster families in need of clothing, books, diapers, car seats, and any number of other items are able to stop in at the Foster Love Project office to get supplies. Please check out their website and reach out if you are able to donate or if you have a need.

Foster Love Project actually hosts two large “drives” throughout the year. During the summer they conduct a gift card drive that can help foster families with clothing and school supplies for the back-to-school season.  And right now, they are about to enter their primary push for collecting bags. Throughout the months of November and December, businesses, neighborhood groups, churches, clubs and generous volunteers of all sorts work together to collect and fill bags so local agencies are prepared with bags to go along with each child placed in a new home.

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We’re really only scratching the surface of the ways that you could help.  In addition to the website, you may want to take a look at their Facebook page for ideas that will inspire you to put a bag together or bring family and friends in to help sort donations in the clothing room. this is an organization that thrives because caring people have been willing to come alongside of Kelly Hughes’ vision and help in the hard work. The more people who can volunteer, the more that can donate, the more children here in the Pittsburgh area will be impacted for the better.

Ronald McDonald House Charities – Pittsburgh

For a three year period that ended in the Fall of 2000, my younger brother spent more nights at the Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital in Cleveland then he did in our home.  That meant that at least one, if not all, of the rest of the family staying in Cleveland, too.  My Dad manned the couch in Chris’s room every one of those nights, but my Mom and I needed to find an alternate place to stay.

Fortunately, nearby was a Ronald McDonald House.  There we were able to get a comfortable bed, a hot shower, and a place to decompress a little after what sometimes felt like endless hours in the hospital.  Without it, we’d have been making the 90 minute drive home and back every day or paying for a hotel room.  Either option would have stretched out budget/sanity beyond the breaking point after a little while.

If you put yourself in our shoes, it isn’t hard to see how important a Ronald McDonald House an be.  And, truthfully, we were in a better position than most of the other families staying there at the time.  Many had traveled long distances, even from other countries, so that their children could receive necessary care.  Families with a sick child are exhausted and anxious.  Having a place to rest their heads each night takes on huge worry off their plates.

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Here is Pittsburgh, a joint effort by a children’s oncologist, the McDonald’s Corporation, and the Pittsburgh Steelers helped open our Ronald McDonald House Charities (RMHC) Home in 1979.  Even with an expansion, needs grew so much over the years that a new home was opened in 2009, right next to Children’s Hospital in Lawrenceville.  In the new House, which include over 70 individual apartments, every family gets to stay in a suite that includes a kitchen and a living room, while larger common areas include a computer room, playroom, and laundry room.  Now families stay just a short walk down a connecting corridor from their children.  Given the nature of 24/7 medical care, the importance of this feature should not be overlooked.

The Ronald McDonald House here in Pittsburgh goes to great lengths to make itself a home away from home for the visiting families.  meals, snacks, paper products, linens and towels are all provided for the guests.  Check-in and check-out are both determined by the individual needs of the family once RMHC has been made aware of the need by a hospital social worker.

The McDonald’s Connection

Ronald McDonald Houses have been the charity of choice for the McDonald’s Corporation since their inception in 1974.  The support of McDonald’s has allowed the charity to expand to 345 houses worldwide.  The corporation is able to support the charity in a wide variety of ways at both the corporate and franchise levels.  I’ll direct you to the website for the details on that, but it is important to note that the growth and success of the charity couldn’t happen without the additional support of many corporate and individual donors, as well as the medical community.  The House here in Pittsburgh is fortunate to have some great, local corporate partners.

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Out of Town and Local

The primary function of RMHC is to provide a home for families who have traveled at least 40 miles so their children can be treated here in Pittsburgh.  While most of the families have children being treated at Pittsburgh’s Children’s Hospital, all local hospitals with pediatric units are able to refer a family to the Ronald McDonald’s House.

Here in the city, RMHC also operate a Care Mobile that travels to medically underserved pockets of Western PA to provide; wellness care, sick visits, physical exams, immunizations, and dental care.  Staffed by Doctors and Nurses, the 40-foot, state-of-the-art vehicle brings much-needed care to over 1,000 children per year.

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Helping

There are roles for both individual and group volunteers at the Ronald McDonald House.  Some of the ways to do that include, but are not limited to:

-cooking a meal

-brining snacks and planning activities for a family social hour

-planning crafts or a party for children staying at the House

-putting on a performance

-decorating the doors on the residence floors

-creating “welcome bags” for new guests

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I really can’t stress enough just how disoriented a family can feel when they are putting all their energies into making certain their sick child is receiving needed attention and care.  RMHC fills a huge gap that would otherwise leave families in a position where they would have to decide between leaving their child on their own in the hospital or adding costs to the medical bills that are already starting to pile up.

I’ll close in my usual manner, by encouraging you to consider if helping RMHC with either your time or your money might be something worth looking in to.  I’m one of the many thousands served over the last 40+ years who can give a first-hand testimony as to the positive impact this facility can have on a family.

MAYA Organization

 

My wife and I first met Tomi Ward when we were considering adoption a few years ago. Ultimately that plan didn’t end up moving forward, but we did gain a friendship with Tomi and her family from the pursuit.  We’ve come to know Tomi as a devoted mother and tireless worker for the nonprofit that she founded in 2009, MAYA Organization.

Like many organizations that started small, the mission of the work that Tomi and her coworkers do at MAYA has changed over the years.  Originally, they focused on adoption and the needs of mothers who were considering placing a child for adoption.  While MAYA is still a full-service adoption agency, that mission has grown as they discovered new needs in the community.

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MAYA still focuses primarily on women and babies, but now their stated mission covers a bit more.  They seek to empower women to break the cycle of generational trauma by fostering the optimal physical and mental development of their children.  It’s a vision that sees holistic health as beginning in the womb and a belief that if women are supported through pregnancy and during that crucial first year of their child’s life, there is a much greater chance that both mother and baby will flourish going forward.

To do this, MAYA employs a number of professional counselors who operate in individual and group settings.  The counselors who work with individuals are trained in a variety of specializations and types of therapy.  The group classes focus on prenatal health and parenting instruction.  Moms who attend classes receive “MAYA Money”, which they can use to purchase baby clothes, diapers, car seats and other necessary accessories.  The intention of offering this incentive is to do all MAYA can to equip new Moms to care for their new children.

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MAYA has offices located on the Northside and in Swissvale, and recently started offering classes to Pittsburgh area refugee and immigrant communities.  They currently offer classes in Spanish, Nepali, and Swahili to women who might otherwise feel isolated and unsure of how to properly care for their new child as they acclimate to a new nation and culture.

Beyond this, MAYA has some access to work with women in the Hope Unit of the Allegheny County Jail thanks to a recent grant that they received.  A shockingly large percentage of incarcerated women have experienced trauma and never had access to mental health counseling.  MAYA hopes to play a positive role in the rehabilitation of these women as they work through a wide variety of issues that may have fostered an environment where bad decisions ultimately led to incarceration.

Even with all of this, MAYA Organization is still a full-service adoption agency; providing help to both women considering adoption and families who would like to adopt.  They are prepared to offer guidance on “where do I start” all the way to counseling that might be necessary for all parties once an adoption is finalized (and everything in between).

How You Can Help

MAYA’s greatest needs at the moment are financial.  The current state budget wrangling has left MAYA (and hundreds of other Pennsylvania organizations) unsure of how to plan for the short and long-term.  If you’d consider donating, they are in the midst of a campaign that will match your giving.

Additionally, MAYA’s mission would benefit from spreading the word about what they do. They exist to help women and families heal. If you know of anyone who might benefit from their services, please point them in the right direction.  They will receive professional, compassionate care.

For more information including how to contact, give to, or learn more about MAYA, please visit their website and reach out directly.

 

Yes, You Can Dance!

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Do you dance?  Honestly, I don’t.  Well, I did dance at my wedding.  And I have to admit that I’m sort of a sucker for my two-year-old’s requests to dance with him.  But beyond that, no, I don’t really dance.  Maybe you’re sort of in the same boat.  But let me ask you this: what if people just assumed your couldn’t dance?  What if nobody ever gave you a chance to dance?  What if your body didn’t work in a way where movement, and coordination, and freedom came easily?

If you were in that situation, and there was somebody out there willing to take the time to help, teach, and work beside you to give you the opportunity to dance, wouldn’t that be pretty special?  Yes, yes it would.  Getting to experience that fun, freedom, and joy would be very special.  Special not just for you, but also for the people who love you and want to give you the chance to embrace life’s simple pleasures.

Yes, You Can Dance! is a wonderfully unique and life-affirming organization that provide opportunities to dance for those with special needs, disabilities, chronic degenerative diseases, and senior citizens.  Founded just six years ago, Yes, You Can Dance! is now operating at it’s original South Hills location in Mt. Lebanon, a recently opened North Hills site, a special program on Pitt’s campus for participants with MS, and in senior care facilities all around the region.

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Their program is both simple and inspiring.  Experienced dance instructors consult with experts familiar with each particular populations therapeutic needs to design dance programs focused on what each group needs for fun, health, and community.  Volunteers are trained to be dance partners (no prior experience necessary), and dance alongside the program’s participants.  The volunteers are supporters, not teachers.  They are there as helping partners who enjoy the class right alongside of the program participants.

The special needs classes in the South and North Hills are taught at four different levels, according to the participant’s experience, and last for 6 weeks at a time on Sunday afternoons.  The MS class at Pitt follows a similar schedule, but the volunteers in this setting are students and instructors from Pitt’s Physical Therapy program.  The dancing at local senior care centers and nursing homes is more a one-time (or re-occurring) dance party known as a “Senior Social” – instructors and volunteers come on site for a visit to dance the day away facility residents.

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One of the coolest aspects of the Yes, You Can Dance! program is The Special Needs Dance Troupe.  These experienced performers are available for hire at private, corporate, and community events.  They can be brought in to come and perform a few dances from their large repertoire of ballroom disciplines.  Their joy is infectious and guaranteed to liven up even the stodgiest of gatherings.

How Can You Help?

Does this sound like fun?  Could it be something you’d enjoy getting on board with?  Excellent!  There are a number of great ways to join in on the fun.  More volunteers are always needed, especially in the North Hills as that location is both new and growing.  Additionally, volunteers who would be available during typical business hours (daytime during the week) are important for the Senior Socials and other special short-term events.  Remember, you don’t have to be a dance pro, just willing to join in the fun.  You’ll be taught all you need to know, and then your job is to go be supportive and listen to the music.  I’ve been told it would be especially great is a larger group, like a church or a club were interested in volunteering.  Please consider!

With regards to financial giving, Yes, You Can Dance! is almost entirely supported through individual donors and no participant is ever turned away because they lack the financial ability to pay to be a part of the group.  The organization would love to expand into other areas of the city and in their relationships with other local organizations.  If your’e interested, they are currently seeking to raise funds for a challenge grant.  If they can raise $50,000 by November, they will have that money matched through this grant.  Wouldn’t helping them meet that goal be a great way to encourage these locals to continue bettering the burgh?