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.

 

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.

Jeremiah’s Place

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“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope for the future. – Jeremiah 29:11  (Inspirational and founding verse of Jeremiah’s Place: A relief nursery in Pittsburgh, PA)

 

How’s your support network? Seriously. How many people do you have in your life that whom you could count on with the things that are most precious to you? How many of these people live close to you? How many of them would drop anything at any moment to come offer you the assistance you need?

Hopefully you have trustworthy, dependable people in your life. But I don’t think you’d be terribly unusual if that list you just made in your head was pretty short. Now imagine you moved to a new city or were recently estranged from your family for one reason or another. It’s not too hard to conceive of yourself in a place where you need help but don’t have anywhere to turn, is it?

Now let’s amp up the intensity of the situation a little bit more. What if you had a young child… or two? What if you had no way of really dealing with an emergency situation of your own because making sure your kids are alright will always be the top priority over and above any other need?

As of April 2014, Pittsburgh now has a good way to address these critical questions. Jeremiah’s Place on the city’s East End is our region’s only crisis nursery that is available 24/7 to care for children six and under when a parent or guardian is in desperate need of help.

 What do they do?

 Jeremiah’s Place is a temporary helping hand to parents when they need it most. The caring staff members and volunteers provide short-term (up to 72 hours) crisis care for children whose regular caregivers are in a desperate situation.

The facility itself is similar to most day cares. There are separate play areas for babies, toddlers, and big kids. There are spaces for both free play and structured activities. There is a kitchenette where warm, nutritious meals are prepared three times a day. But what is unusual here is that there are also three bedrooms equipped with space for up to twelve children to sleep overnight. Emergencies don’t just happen during business hours, and Jeremiah’s Place acknowledges this by providing overnight care for families in need.

 Why do they do it?

 Have you ever tried to go to a doctor’s appointment with a two-year-old? What about a job interview with a four-month-old strapped in a carrier? Can you imagine if your furnace broke in the middle of winter and the repair man couldn’t make it until tomorrow afternoon? Really, the list of reasons why a person might need help caring for his children is pretty long. It can even include the need for a few hours respite when a tired mom feels like the stresses of her world are about to push her into the ground.

Since its founding, over 600 children have been cared for at Jeremiah’s Place free of charge. Support staff is on hand to help parents address their emergency situations if they aren’t sure where to turn or who to contact.

Jeremiah’s Place exists because of the recognition that parents are often faced with extremely difficult choices. Knowing that your children are safe, even if it’s just for a few hours, can make facing those choices so much easier.

 How can you help?

 There are a lot of great ways to help Jeremiah’s Place if this sounds like an organization you’d like to see continue their hard work. Of course financial assistance and volunteer help are crucial. Some other specific needs that were mentioned when I visited recently included: new shoes (of all sizes), clothing for bigger kids (4t and up), gift cards to Giant Eagle or Target so that the staff can meet a specific need for a kid when they come in, and little kid appropriate craft supplies.

Additionally, if you’d like to volunteer but don’t yet have all of your clearances (something you must have when working with children) the staff can also use assistants when they attend events where they look to raise money and awareness for the mission.

To learn more about Jeremiah’s Place, how you can make use of their services, how you can donate, or to find other specific ways in which you can help, please email info@jeremiahsplace.org.