Sam Kieffer

What do you do when you learn about a problem?

If you are like most of us, you are probably moved with compassion (at least a little), and wish better for the people or situation.  Maybe you even stop and pray, or do a little research on the situation.

Sadly, very few of us (I’m including myself here) ever decide to do something about it. Taking action often feels like something for somebody else to do.

Sam Kieffer sees it a bit differently.  Sam is the kind of guy who wants to do something about it. At the ripe old age of 9, he has already started three significant projects to help improve the lives of those around him.

Sam’s Blessing Box

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You may have seen a blessing box or something similar as you’ve driven around town. Sam had, too, and decided that his home area of Cheswick could use one. The idea is pretty simple, but very helpful. Every community has people in need. Sometimes it’s temporary; others times it’s more of a long-term situation. Why not create a little station (or box) where someone with needs could stop by and anonymously pick up a few food or personal items to help them when life is difficult?

Sam’s Blessing Box is located on Jacoby Road. It’s busy enough that he has to restock it twice a week. The top two shelves have a variety of non-perishable food items (he tells me that staple items like flour and sugar go especially fast), and the bottom shelf rotates between personal items and seasonal gifts.  It’s become well-enough-known around his Indiana Township home area that many people have joined in on providing donations and even commented that they were inspired to do something similar.

Save the Brains

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Moved by his father’s fight with brain tumors, Same has taken it upon himself to find a way to end them. Specifically, he has started a fundraising project that he calls “Save the Brains,”  which has raised over $7,000 dollars since he started it two summers ago as a 7-year-old.

The money raised by Save the Brains goes to the Epidermoid Brain Tumor Society (EBTS) to help combat a rare form of brain tumor.  Sam raises money via a Go-Fund-Me page and a Lemonade Stand that happens throughout the year.  The next event will be held on May 12th at the Middle Road Soccer Field Complex in Glenshaw.

Just to round out the impressive things about this young man: he’s also a published author. He recently released a book of poetry called Freedom Zone that is full of his work, as well as illustrations from his friends and family.  Some of the proceeds will  be going towards EBTS.

Buddy Bench

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Sam’s inspiration for outreach isn’t just limited to his family and his neighborhood.  He’s also working with his teachers and school administration to help get a Buddy Bench built at his Fox Chapel School District elementary school. A Buddy Bench is meant to help combat loneliness on school playgrounds. Basically, a kid who is feeling lonely or doesn’t have anyone to play with goes and sits on the bench. Other kids who know about the bench come over to connect with that kid and ensure nobody feels left out or alone.

Since Better the Burgh started about a year and a half ago, I have only done profiles of local nonprofits. All along I said that I’d also love to profile local individuals with lives that exemplify what it means to Better the Burgh.  Sam is our first, and I hope his commitment to take action with situations that are directly related to his life is an inspiration to you. He hasn’t allowed the idea of it being “somebody else’s problem” to creep into his thinking. May we all look to do likewise.

412 Food Rescue

 

Generally speaking, nonprofits are founded for the purpose of addressing an unmet need.  When they are run well, they focus on one mission and work to correct the problem.  412 Food Rescue has found a way to do more, in a uniquely visionary way.  In fact, 412 Food Rescue actually works to correct three pretty major issue in our world with one simple, but brilliant, idea.

Even with the push in recent years to develop environmental consciousness and increase recycling, we still live in a society in which far too many things are disposed of too easily.  We churn through things. We don’t use what we buy. We throw away things when they are broken instead of figuring out how to fix them. We just move on to the next thing, often without much thoughts about the cost.

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When it comes to food, the statistics that 412 Food Rescue shares on their website are pretty staggering.  Here in the U.S., 15% of the population is hungry. 40% of the food production in our world ends up being thrown away.  When all the numbers are added up, they equate to 20 pounds of food person, per month that is being wasted. Isn’t that a disconnect?  Isn’t there something wrong here? The founders of 412 Food Rescue, Leah Lizarando and Gisele Fetterman sure believed so. And they figured out an amazing way to bridge that gap.

A lot of the success of 412 Food Rescue seems to rest in their unique ability to create partnerships and connections in three different directions. They have built relationships with restaurants, grocery stores, caterers, and wholesale suppliers who reach out to 412 Food Rescue when they have a surplus, leftovers, or the food on the shelves is nearing it’s sell-by date. 412 Food Rescue then gives that food to local nonprofits, community centers, and even local housing authorities serving people who for whom food (especially fresh, perishable food) can be scarce.

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Transporting things from point A to point B is where things really get cool. While 412 Food Rescue does have a refrigerator truck that can handle some of the larger pick ups and deliveries, most of the food transportation is handled by volunteers, or as 412 Food Rescue calls them, Food Rescue Heroes.

These connections are made primarily through an amazing app that I’d encourage you to download at the App Store or on Google Play by typing in 412 Food Rescue in the search bar. Sometimes there are consistent daily or weekly pick ups, but often there is a new situation that will pop up, and it is important to get that food to the people who need it while it is still fresh. W?hen you are signed up on the app to be a Hero, you will be notified when there is a waiting food donation in your area. If you can pick it up and get it where it needs to go, you simply claim it via the app and make the delivery. If it won’t fit your schedule, you can leave it for someone else to scoop up.

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This is a really amazing way to volunteer. No huge, long-term commitments (unless you’d like it to be). If you have a free hour today, you can volunteer. You do what you can, when you can. The hope is that there will be enough people just like you, wanting to help end things like food wast, hunger, and the environmental toll of trashing usable food, that all needs will be met.

I really can’t commend this organization enough. They are an amazing example of creative problem solving; finding a way to solve multiple problems with one fell swoop. In fact, things have gone so well with 412 Food Rescue here in Allegheny County that 724 Food Rescue is in the works to address some of these same problems in the rest of the Pittsburgh metro area. Please reach out if you live in one of the surrounding counties and would like to help too.

 

Light of Life Rescue Mission

Long before I ever lived in Pittsburgh or worked with folks who had experienced homelessness, I remember riding into the city with my Dad to go to a Pirates game.  As we approached the stadium I saw men who looked as though they had experienced some of the hardest things that life can offer hanging out along Western Avenue.  I didn’t really have a point of reference to know what was going on at that time. What had happened?  Why were they here?  How could we help?

Fast forward 30-plus years, and I’m now a Northside resident. The answer to “what happened” is very large and very complex. But the answer to “why are they here” and “how can we help” could be found right there on Western Avenue. The Light of Life Rescue Mission has been working to serve the homeless and the hungry here in Pittsburgh for over 60 years now.  While best methods for serving people and the Mission’s capacity to serve have changed and grown over the years, they continue to provide a home for the homeless, food for the hungry, and build disciples for the Kingdom of God.

That Christian commitment is indubitably foundational at Light of Life Rescue Mission.  There is a chapel, studies, and prayer.  But a different faith, or a lack of faith, in no way precludes someone from receiving the help that he or she needs. Fellowship is available to people who use the services here, but it is not forced on them.

Speaking of services, Light of Life has expanded to provide a number of different services to members of the community.  The Meal Ministry is often a person’s first introduction to what the Rescue Mission can offer. Breakfast and dinner are served seven days a week to not only program participants, but to the community at large. Anyone who is hungry, is welcome. Last year they served over 200,000 meals with the help of dedicated volunteers, generous donors, and an amazing kitchen staff.

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There are also 22 beds dedicated to emergency shelter for men in the community who might need it. Beyond having a safe place to sleep, the men are provided with shower facilities, clean clothes and access to case managers.  Staying in the emergency shelter is often a first step towards one of the more structured programs offered through Light of Life to help men reestablish a life that isn’t marked by housing instability.

For men, the Light of Life Rescue Mission currently offers three different long-term programs tailored to the specific needs of the participants. The eight bed Housing and Employment program provides stable housing, case management and connection to a variety of employment, educational, housing, and medical services to help prepare the men to work and live on their own again.

The Year Long Recovery Program has 30 beds and is set up in 4 phases for men who have been struggling with addiction. Here community and a variety of therapies work hand-in-hand to support the men’s sobriety and prepare them to transition back into society. Additionally, there are 8 more beds dedicated to mental health. This program operates alongside the Recovery Program, but also provides dedicated mental healthcare and is available for a longer time frame to ensure the stability of the participants.

Knowing there are also needs among single mothers and their children, Light of Life also established a Women and Children’s program. They are able to provide comprehensive care and help fitted to the specific needs of the women and families. Services include: housing in a local apartment, transportation, childcare, intensive counseling, education, and training, as well as the opportunity to heal and become part of a community that will allow them to grow as mothers and help them return to independent living when the time is right.

How to Help

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I really want to emphasize just what an important part of our community Light of Life has been over the last sixty years. Thousand of Pittsburgh Residents have received help and love by entering these doors. If you’d like to join in with their work, I’d of course recommend all the usual ways.  Please give, volunteer, and pray.

Specifically, the most pressing needs right now are for Large, XL and XXL size men’s socks and underwear (no briefs) as well as razors and deodorant. For single or small groups of volunteers, the kitchen always needs help with preparing and serving meals.

Eye of the Needle

 

Something that significantly changed in the way that Light of Life served people over the last 10-15 years has been the way our region has experienced what is commonly called the “Opioid Epidemic”. At some point I’ll share my own personal story about this, but for now, I’d really encourage you to watch this video and familiarize yourself with the way heroin has damaged the lives of thousands around Pittsburgh and made caring for the homeless a much more desperate situation.

(Special thanks to Michael Ray for the use of the cover photo)

The Still Remembered Project

There are some things that people just do not talk about. Topics that people avoid because of discomfort.  Because they don’t know what to say. Because they aren’t really sure how to wrap their minds around what has happened.

Miscarriage, stillbirth, and the early loss of a child are situations that are undoubtedly near the top of that list of topics to avoid.  But for the women and families who have experienced such loss, the grief is very real and is often very lonely. Sometimes nobody (or only a very select few) knows. Other times different understanding of what has happened can lead to hurtful words or avoidance.

Even now, five and four years after losses that left our family reeling, I feel very hesitant to share our story. In some ways it doesn’t even feel like mine to tell, as it was my wife who experienced that loss within her body.  She was the one who had already begun to feel that physical and emotional connection with those tiny people who we would never have the chance to meet on this side of heaven. As sad as I felt, it was she who truly bore that pain of loss.

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But I guess that’s one of the things that make something like miscarriage so disorienting. We don’t always have the right terms to talk about it. We don’t know whose story it is. We don’t know who will listen and understand and care in a way that acknowledges the reality of the loss.

The Still Remembered Project gets this. The women who operate this new Pittsburgh organization understand the sympathy and support needed to help with healing a broken heart, because they have experienced it as well. It is because of her loss that Lauren McLean initially helped form a Christian-based support group for grieving families.

From this support group, a larger mission grew that seeks to offer comfort to grieving families in a number of different fashions. In fact, there are now six different projects to help families heal that come under the Still Remembered Project umbrella.

Still Supported – Still Supported is a monthly peer support group for women who have experienced the loss of a baby (at any gestational stage). It’s a place to share, or listen. An opportunity to be around others who have experienced something similar to you and can understand, at least in part, the loss that you are experiencing. Even if your loss was not recent, you are welcome to attend.

Still Missed – Still Missed focuses specifically on families who are experiencing a miscarriage. One way they do this is by placing care packages with local hospitals and OB offices that can be shared with women after they learn of their miscarriage. It is a small gift to let her know that she is not alone, and that there are people who care about her and the child that was lost.

Still Remembered Memory Boxes – These are provided as bereavement boxes for families after a stillbirth or the death of a newborn. Mothers who experienced a similar loss create the boxes, filling them with items they believe will help the family memorialize the lost child.

Still Family – The Still Family project recognizes that it isn’t always just the mother and father who are disoriented by the loss of a child in pregnancy. There is support available for all family members, but with a special focus on the siblings. When possible, the hospital will provide a sibling bag to families that includes some comforting items and a book titled “We were gonna have a baby, but We had an angel instead.”

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Still Together – Still Together is the community outreach portion of the Still Remembered Project.  Here they seek to partner with medical professionals, hospitals, and other organizations to provide advocacy, education, and awareness of the fact that 25% of women in the United States experience some form of infant loss.

Stitched with Love – Stitched with Love donates handmade knitted, crocheted, and sewn baby blankets to hospitals to be given to families with the belief that every baby, no matter how brief their life, should have a cozy blanket. And every family should have a handmade keepsake to help with remembering their child.Untitled design (8)Please refer to the Still Remembered Project website for greater details on all of these projects and more. There is a wide variety of ways that you can donate or volunteer your time in support of local bereaved families.  And if you or your family have experienced this sort of a loss, please reach out.  You will be welcomed and heard.

On a very personal level, I commend this group to you if you’re grieving this type of loss or know of somebody who is. Their sensitivity and genuine care was obvious in my interactions with them. Sometimes we want to grieve alone.  But at other times it’s helpful to share, and remember that you are not alone.

Urban Impact Foundation

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Christmas seems like an appropriate time to share a profile on Urban Impact. At its heart, Christmas is the story of God responding to humanity’s great need by sending His Son to be the light in the darkness.  That’s really what Urban Impact wants to be as well.  They want to be a light. They want to connect, and love, and help. Their mission of transforming a community flows from this desire: one person, one family, one block at a time.

Over 20 years ago, Ed and Tammy Glover, Urban Impact’s founders, were living and working on the Northside of Pittsburgh. The problems in much of their community seemed big, even overwhelming. As they prayed for direction, they felt like they were being led to see that communities change when families change, and families change when individuals change, and individuals change when their hearts change, and hearts change when they know that they are loved.

This is the approach that Urban Impact has maintained, even as they have grown into an organization that was able to serve nearly 2,000 children last year. Little hearts changed as relationships are built in a number of different contexts. Urban Impact has partnered with Northside schools, churches, and other nonprofit organizations to create a wide variety of programs that offer things neighborhood children and teens both want and need.

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The list of programs is impressive.  I’ll just scratch the surface here.  They have broken it down into four categories, each with a wide variety of options.

  1. Performing Arts – There are choirs and instrument performance lessons with groups for a variety of ages. There are a number of different theater classes and performance groups. Students can learn to dance, or work in a number of different visual arts disciplines like painting, photography, and stage setup.
  2. Athletics – As a Northside resident myself, I had my first introduction to Urban Impact when my oldest son took part in their Spring soccer program. I was impressed to learn that in addition to soccer, they offers kids the opportunity to participate in basketball, baseball, and swimming programs for all different levels of skills and abilities.
  3. Education – Urban Impact is able to offer in-school and after-school support with both literacy and math for Northside students. The Sumer educational structure at the organization’s very popular Summer Camp can help ameliorate some of the unfortunate drop off that may occur when students are away from the classroom for three months of vacation.
  4. Options – Urban Impact’s most recently developed program category looks to help prepare middle and high school student for employment and life after graduation.  There is a job readiness program, a program that helps students consider various careers and educational avenues, a mentoring program, and an SAT prep course.

From what I’ve heard, the program are excellent and the leaders are caring. This is a good place for kids to come participate in activities they love, get the help that they need, and be a part of a community of caring adults who are invested in their success.

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In addition to these programs, Urban Impact also hosts and leads Bible studies for spiritual nourishment and provide meals or snacks for students when programs extend through meal times so that the kids are physically nourished as well.

There more, including a number of special events throughout the year, but I’ll leave you to explore these as you look at their website. Participation in the various programs isn’t limited to Northside children, although all of the programs are located on the Northside because it is Urban Impact’s home turf.

I met with Urban Missionary and Director of Athletics, Seth Reichart (please watch the interview below), and he said there are three great ways to partner with Urban Impact.  They invite you to:

  1. Pray
  2. Volunteer – There are a number of different volunteer opportunities with Urban Impact. Just reach out, and they will help you find the right fit.
  3. Give – especially now. There is currently a large matching grant that will match your gift dollar for dollar. If you are considering an end-of-the-year donation, your gift to the Urban Impact Foundation would be doubled.

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.