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.

Pittsburgh

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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?

 

Western Pennsylvania Diaper Bank

“The Blessing is in the Diaper”

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My family has needed diapers for 5 of the past 6 1/2 years, and I’m excited to share that, with a third child to arrive this summer, the total will likely end up being over 8 years worth of diapers in a 10 year period when all is said and done. While this is something we can afford, we are also very fortunate in that our boys’ grandparents have gladly cover a lot of that expense so far.

But what happens when you can’t afford all those diapers?  What happens when the expense that I’ve seen estimated at as high as $1,500 per year for diapers and wipes is more than you can bear?  There are not government programs out there for this most basic of needs.  Sadly, many parents end up leaving their babies in dirty diapers for far too long.  Some even try to clean, dry, and reuse diapers that are meant to be disposable in order to reduce the expense that comes from using additional diapers.

I’m sure it’s not surprising to consider that a baby wearing a dirty diaper is much more likely to experience discomfort that can lead to skin irritation and lots of crying.  It’s a really difficult position for a parent to be in.  I speak from experience when I say that a baby who is difficult to console can make a parent feel pretty helpless.

By many accounts, this has been an under-reported need for a while.  Parents can be embarrassed to say that they aren’t able to meet the most basic needs of their children.  The children are obviously far to young to advocate for themselves, beyond their cries.  Fortunately for families in our area who find themselves stuck in this sort of a situation, we have the Western Pennsylvania Diaper Bank.

The Western PA Diaper Bank exists for two main purposes and are basically accomplished through on primary action (or series of actions).  On a macro scale, the diaper bank exists to raise awareness of the diaper shortage that many low-income people experience and advocate for their help.  The topic received some press last year when President Obama made it a part of his Mother’s Day address.  On a more micro, personal scale, the diaper bank works to do the dirty work of collecting and distributing diapers to local organizations that have direct contact with needy family in and around Pittsburgh.  Each purpose works to accomplish their vision of ensuring that every child has enough diapers to remain clean, healthy, and dry.  And each purpose is primarily addressed through diaper drives, both small and large.

This nonprofit organization was established here in 2012 and is affiliated with the National Diaper Bank Network.  They are entirely volunteer-run and a large number of the diapers distributed come from diaper drives conducted by local schools, churches, and individuals.  Once collected, the diapers are distributed through the Diaper Bank’s 32 local partner agencies.

In the spirit of joining the work of organizations that we are featuring here on Better the Burgh, I’d like to announce that we are conducting a diaper drive over the next two weeks. Let’s work together to collect as many diapers as we can for this worthwhile organization.  I’ll plan on delivering them on March 31st.  Please reach out to me here, or through the Facebook page if you are interested in donating.  I’ll either give you my address if you’d like to drop them off or try to coordinate a time and location where I could come pick them up from you.

I’ve pulled the below video from the National Diaper Bank network’s Youtube page.  It was used for a specific organization’s drive but it is absolutely applicable to to what I’m sharing here.  Please check it out.

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North Hills Community Outreach

I’ve taken a little bit longer in getting this next blog post out.  Part of that is because I’m getting a lot busier with work.  But the other part has been that every time I’ve thought of writing about North Hills Community Outreach, I felt a little bit overwhelmed.  I visited their main North Hills location in Alison Park last month to learn about what they do; I’ve read their literature and brochures; I’ve scoured their website – and then every time I sat down to write about their work, I wondered where on earth to start.

They have a mission of “addressing the needs of people in crisis, hardship, and poverty” for those who live in the northern portions of Allegheny County.  And as they’ve grown from a tiny group founded by clergy in the North Hills in response to some serious flooding that occurred in 1986, they’ve been able to address more and more needs through a growing variety of programs.

I’m going to end up sharing a lot of facts and statistics in this post, mostly because they are impressive and North Hills Community Outreach has done such a good job tracking what they do.  In fact, if I were just telling you what most impressed me when I was at their offices, it would be their commitment to wise stewardship and making use of every single opportunity to give.  Their is no waste in this organization.  Bring them your leftover , blue Giant Eagle grocery bags.  They can put them to use.  Donating food?  They will even clip the Box tops and make sure they are given to a school in need.  Printing on just one side of that internal document?  They don’t through it away.  They put it back in the copier and use the other side.  Every dime and every donation are treated with the utmost respect.  It all matters.

The following numbers are from their most recent annual report.

3,804 families and 33,117 people were assisted in the fiscal year 2015-2016

1,743 volunteers logged 39,000 hour of assistance.  (This is the equivalent of 19 full-time staff).

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185 senior citizens received 5,817 rides from the Free Rides for Seniors ride share program that operates two vehicles along the Route 28 corridor.

-Seasonal sharing projects were able to done 1,060 holiday gifts, 241 winter warms utility credits, 2,000 winter coats, 130 spring baskets, & 1,240 backpacks filled with school supplies.

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29 working people with low income were able to purchase cars through the Community Auto Program.

4,450 lbs of organic produce were distributed through the NHCO Community Gardens.

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The list could, honestly, go on and on.  I imagine there must be some limit to the number of services offered through North Hills community Outreach, but it really seems like they have worked very hard to meet every need and cover every gap in some way, shape, or form.  And for whetever they don’t do themselves, they’ve developed partnerships with a number of other Allegheny County organizations they can direct people towards.

How You Can Help

I know it sounds like they have all their bases covered, but they can only do this much because generous people and volunteers have been so willing to help.  Perhaps you could do that, too?  Some specific volunteer needs that were emphasized to me during my visit include weekday drivers to help get local seniors to appointments, people skilled with data entry (given what a great job they do tracking everything, this should be a surprise), and willing souls able to participate outside of the popular Thanksgiving through Christmas volunteer window.

Donations are gladly accepted.  They need to keep three large food pantries stocked (I’m told that canned potatoes, tomatoes, and peaches are especially popular); vehicle donations for Community Auto can do a lot of good; and appropriate items for the seasonal sharing projects are especially helpful.

Please call ahead if you have a specific or unique donation to share (412-487-6316).  They love to find a home for everything but they don’t have a lot of extra storage space to hold on to items that are a little outside of the norm.

I’ve honestly only scratched the surface here in sharing with you all that North Hills community Outreach does for North Hills residents.  It’s clear their founding pillars of faith, compassion, empowerment, and stewardship really do fuel the work they accomplish each day.  And if you don’t happen to live in the area that they service, take heart.  Just call the front desk and somebody will be able to direct you to an organization that can help you in your home area.  They really do have everything covered.

 

CCO

In hindsight, I think it is pretty true to say that I entered college woefully unprepared for the new freedoms and responsibilities that I had living somewhere other than under my parents’ roof.  I had been an above-average student, and athlete, and a church-going young man for the bulk of my adolescence.  I assumed I had it all together, but man was I wrong.

I’ll spare you the gory details (for now), but let’s just say it took about eight years and four colleges for me to even begin to even begin to “get it together.”  There are a lot of people I should express my gratitude to for the growth that I finally began to experience.  Strangely enough, more than a few of them were affiliated with an organization headquartered here in Pittsburgh called the Coalition for Christian Outreach (CCO).  Since that time I have continued to rub shoulders with people affiliated with the CCO from time to time.  I can say, without reservation, that every one of them has been an excellent individual, friend, and leader.  I really couldn’t be more impressed with the people who go to work for the CCO.  I hope that after learning a little more about them, you will join me in holding them in high regard.

What it Looks Like

The CCO was founded in 1971 when a group of clergy recognized a void on most college campuses.  Students at both private and state schools were being exposed to a flood of challenging, exciting new ideas – but there were very few opportunities for them to either pursue or grow in faith.  The CCO saw a need for for people who were equipped to come alongside of college students and help them think through all these new ideas in light of a worldview that believes all things belong to God, and that faithfulness to Him is best pursued communally.

Today the CCO is on 116 college campuses throughout the Mid-Atlantic and Mid-West.  It’s representatives are often partnered with a local church, and end up filling any of a wide variety of role on or off campus.  Some teach, others counsel, work with campus life, with athletes, or even in a coffee shop.  The CCO tries hard to design each role to meet the needs of a particular campus.

Many, though certainly not all of the CCO’s staff are recent college graduates themselves.  They are able to mentor and share life with students through service learning opportunities (locally or traveling), discussion groups, Bible studies, and just hanging out and having fun.  Ultimately, the goal is to strengthen and equip.  So many young people feel compelled to “make a difference” as they are exposed to new ideas and needs in college.  But it’s hard to know where to begin, or what foundation this “difference making” should be grounded in.  The CCO exists to encourage these students to recognize that their entire lives can be seen as service to Christ.  They can serve in their studies, their communities, their families, and their jobs; both now and when they move on from college life.

In what is certainly the highlight of the year, the CCO hold a huge conference called Jubilee at the David Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh each February.  Well over a thousand students come together for a weekend that includes not only worship, but also doens of challenging speakers and sessions that examine a wide variety of disciplines and that challenge students to walk humbly, love justice, and live faithfully.  Most attend as part of a campus group, but if you know of a student who’d be interested in coming on his/her own, he or she would be more than welcome.  Actually, if this appeals to you personally but you’ve moved past your collegiate years, there is an afternoon at the conference known as Jubilee Professional where people of all ages come together to discuss what it looks like to work faithfully in their particular vocations.

I really hope that my true affection for the people affiliated with the CCO comes through in this blog post.  The people I have known have challenged and encouraged me.  They have pushed me to grow in the way that I think about God and the way that I care more about other people.  I really can’t recommend the transformative work that they do more highly.  If you know of a college student on a campus where the CCO is present, encourage them to take a look.  And if you are in a position to help support this work financially, know that you would be giving to a group that seeks to be good stewards of all that they are given.  CCO staff fund-raise individually, much like a missionary would, for at least part of their salaries.  In doing this they not only keep costs down for the organization, but they also allow friends and supporters the opportunity to partner in the valuable work being done.

 

Coraopolis Youth Creations

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One of my hopes for Better the Burgh is that it will allow me to help spread the word about new organizations working to gain traction with their missions here in the Pittsburgh area.  When I met Coraopolis Youth Creations (CYC) founder, Lucinda Wade a few months ago at a Kiwanis meeting, I was excited to learn more about the work that she was doing.  After sitting down with her just before Christmas, I discovered that CYC is exactly the kind of place that Better the Burgh aims to help promote.

Occupying the space of the old Moose Lodge in downtown Coraopolis, CYC is an after-school and weekends program geared towards middle-school students in Coraopolis and the West Hills.  While it’s official 501c3 status and location are both relatively new, Mrs. Wade has been working with and serving the young people of Coraopolis out of the basement of her husband’s church for over a decade.

CYC operates as a hang-out space for kids in the 10-13 age range, while offering a number of programed activities each month.  Events like yoga, a drum circle, family movie night, and dances are a part of the regular schedule.  In order to occasionally take the show on the road, Mrs. Wade also works hard to procure tickets and transportation to local theater productions, sporting events, and museums.

As with any new organization, many aspects of what CYC will ultimately be are still taking shape.  They have formed partnerships with local organizations like the Sewickley YMCA, Sweetwater Center for the Arts, and the RMU Island Sports Center (to name a few) in order to provide more opportunities for the kids.  I’m certain that most parents with children still at home can relate to how difficult it can be to keep them engaged and stimulated with positive activities.  My kids aren’t in the CYC age range yet, but I can absolutely appreciate how helpful having a trustworthy organization like this nearby would be.

Mrs. Wade hopes to see continued growth in what CYC is able to offer, and this is where you might come in.  The primary needs right now are for in-kind donations like TVs, video gaming equipment, office furniture and supplies as well as equipment and snacks to outfit a cafe that will be fun by the youth as a mans of learning some business basics.  Beyond this, anyone with the ability to lead some type of enrichment activity on a regular basis (or even as a special, one-time offering) would be most welcome.

It was easy to see how Mrs. Wade’s love for the children of her city has provided the foundation for what she is now doing.  If you’re interested in joining in or learning more, please visit the organizations website and reach out to Mrs. Wade via the contact form there.  She can answer any of your questions and will be especially happy if you’d like to participate in the CYC’s stated mission of strengthening families and building community through youth enrichment.  Also, clear your calendars for their first fundraiser on May 19th: a mini-golf tournament at the Hat Trick Club on Neville Island.