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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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.

Rebuilding Together – Pittsburgh

Right from the start I’ll come clean with the fact that I really love the model that Rebuilding Together – Pittsburgh has developed to impact individuals, homes, and entire communities. They have been at work here in Pittsburgh for 23, years and during that time they have completed over 2,300 projects focused on low-income seniors, veterans, and those with disabilities. But the work that Rebuilding Together accomplished for these individuals has also provided a huge boost for neighboring homes, and often the surrounding neighborhood as a whole.

 What do they do?

 Rebuilding Together works from a simple vision. They want to see everyone in a safe and healthy home. To realize this vision, the primary focus of the organization has always been home repair. This often means tackling some of the most basic aspects of a home: plumbing, electrical, roof and floor repairs are frequently needed in order to make a home safe. But, because a large portion of the population they served is aging or has difficulty getting around, this can also mean retrofitting a home with safety features like grab bars and wheelchair ramps. Rebuilding Together will also weatherize a home so that utility costs become more manageable for the owner.

A second, innovative aspect of what Rebuilding Together – Pittsburgh is doing can be found in their Jobs First initiative that started a few years ago. With this program, members of the neighborhood where the project is being conducted are brought on as short-term employees. These employees are given stable work for about eight months while they are being trained to be team leaders. In completing the program, they develop the skills and work history that is necessary for transitioning over to full-time employment in a service trade.

 Why do they do it?

 Helping to make a single home safe and healthy is an admirable goal, but Rebuilding Together – Pittsburgh does so much more. It’s always going to be a positive to undertake a project that will raise the value of a home. As a real estate agent, I call tell you that there are a number of excellent ways to do this. And, yes, it will have a positive impact (if ever so slightly) on the value of your neighbor’s homes as well. But when two, or ten, or even twenty homes, all within blocks of each other have improvements made that raise their value, this will really elevate the entire neighborhood. Rebuilding Together – Pittsburgh has discovered that they can exponentially increase their impact by focusing on particular communities, neighborhoods, and streets. This is how even the homeowners who are not working directly with Rebuilding Together- Pittsburgh are benefiting from the good work that is being done and an example of what can be accomplished by focusing on what the organization calls “comprehensive impact neighborhoods”. Currently, Rebuilding Together – Pittsburgh has given seven local neighborhoods this designation as they look to focus their work on places where they can have the greatest overall impact.

When long-time residents aren’t able to stay in their homes, the neighborhood loses a neighbor. If this happens repeatedly, the neighborhood begins to lose its history, even its identity. Rebuilding Together wants to increase the ability of residents to age in place: to keep the homes where their children grew up and where so many life events took place. There is dignity in this; there is preservation of community; there is kindness.

 How you can help?

 Rebuilding Together – Pittsburgh is the perfect organization for those of you who don’t mind getting your hands a bit dirty. There is something extremely satisfying about working with your hands to make something safer and better. While finding new “capacity volunteers” with some construction skills is an important goal right now for Rebuilding Together, I have been assured that everyone can do something. Please don’t let your perceived lack of abilities hold you back from getting involved with this group. They will find you a role, and probably teach you some useful skills in the process.

Your financial and in-kind donations will also be put to very good use here. If you need specific ideas, please don’t hesitate to reach out (provide link). Things like handrails, windows and appliances are almost always necessary for making a home more livable. Hardware store gifts cards will be put to good use. This is an organization that prides itself on the ways it has creatively collaborated with a variety partners. Offer your suggestion, there will likely be a way to use it.

Little Sisters of the Poor

Be kind, especially with the infirm. Love them well … Oh yes! Be kind. It is a great grace God is giving you. In serving the aged, it is he himself whom you are serving. – Saint Jeanne Jugan

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Have you ever spent much time in a nursing home? What were your impressions? I can assure you that if you have the opportunity to visit the Little Sisters of the Poor nursing home and independent living apartments in the Brighton Heights neighborhood of Pittsburgh, it will be different from what you expect. You will see with your own eyes what can happen when love and the dignity of the individual are made the highest priority in nursing care.

My first experience of their facility on Benton Avenue came soon after moving to the neighborhood. My wife and son were invited to attend a “Tunes with Tots” program at the home where preschoolers serenaded and sang with the residents. That evening my wife, who has been a nurse for nearly a decade, reported to me that she had never been in a nursing home as nice as this one. It wasn’t long until I had the chance to see it for myself. As usual, her assessment was spot on.

 What do they do?

 To tell it as simply as possible, the Little Sisters of the Poor provide a home for the indigent elderly from the city of Pittsburgh. All residents must be at least 65 years old and financially needy – meaning they could not afford to be cared for by any other facility. Here in the Pittsburgh home there are 48 private rooms for nursing home residents and 45 independent living apartments.

Beyond the basics of room, board, and medical care (which are all provided with excellence), what sets this home apart is that it truly feels like a home. The Little Sisters and their staff have created an environment in which everyone is loved and cared for in a holistic way that attends to each resident’s physical, social, and spiritual needs. While some facilities are sadly known for the isolation and loneliness of the residents, the Little Sisters of the Poor home in Pittsburgh is just the opposite. Everyone there recognized as a member of the family here in this home and is encouraged to participate, as they are able, in the community around them.

Why do they do it?

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Entrance to Little Sisters of the Poor – Pittsburgh

 The Little Sisters of the Poor is a religious order founded by Saint Jeanne Jugan in France 180 years ago. The story goes that when Jugan was a young woman, she saw an elderly woman begging on the side of the road. Jugan responded by bringing the poor woman home to her apartment, placing the woman in her bed, and returning to the streets to beg on her behalf. The Little Sisters have carried on this tradition based on the belief that human life is sacred and that each unique life, especially the lives of the poorest and the weakest, should be embraced with hospitality and compassion.

The need amongst the elderly poor has not lessened in two centuries. In fact, as families go their disparate ways in this modern world, the need has likely grown. There are still many elderly poor here in Pittsburgh who face decisions like having to choose between medication and food each month. The waiting list for admission to the home is, sadly, very long. The order’s local Mother believes they could easily fill up seven or eight similarly sized homes without any difficulty if they had the resources to do so.

 How you can help

There are many events at this hidden gem on Pittsburgh’s Northside where your help would be welcomed. Volunteer opportunities abound but perhaps the most valuable role would be to simply serve as a willing visitor and companion. Not every resident has family and friends who are able to sit with him or her. Perhaps you could be that person whose presence would enrich and comfort a resident whose long life brought them to this place of need.

Of course donations, both in-kind and financial, are also necessary for the Little Sisters’ mission to remain stable and even grow. Around 50% of the home’s budget is funded through the donations of supporters who believe in the work that is being done.   I’d really encourage you to visit. Your opinion of what a nursing home should be will likely be change if you share even a small role in increasing the joy that infuses this home.

Senior Pet and Animal Rescue

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“Blessed is the person who has earned the love of an old dog.” – Sydney Jean Seward

My dad is fond of saying that “rescued pets love you more.”  He believes they truly appreciate the face that you took them from a situation where they were not receiving the care and attention they needed and gave them a good home.

For some reason I have always felt like his idea was a little bit silly.  It’s not that I really disagreed with him, I guess I just hadn’t spent much time thinking about it.  That changed one recent morning when I had the opportunity to speak with Jennifer Pease, a founder of Senior Pet and Animal Rescue (SPAAR).  SPAAR’s founding was the result of two friends, who were experienced volunteers in animal shelters around Pittsburgh, comparing notes and realizing there was a real need for helping families to keep their senior pets and helping to rescue senior pets that no longer had a home.

What do they do?

SPAAR’s mission, in simplest terms, is to make sure that senior pets (6+ for dogs and 8+ for cats) are being taken care of by a family that loves them.  sometimes that means helping a family that cannot afford to care for their senior pet by assisting with medical bills and supplies via a program called Ferdiand’s Fund.   Other times it means helping to find a foster home or new adoptive home for a senior pet when a local shelter hasn’t had success in finding a willing family.

Additionally, a unique aspect of SPAAR’s mission is to provide hospice care for pets that have been given a terminal diagnosis.  As these cats and dogs are often especially difficult to find a match for, SPAAR seeks to not only find homes for these pets, but has also fostered relationships with local veterinarians to provide appropriate end-of-life care that allows for comfortable and love-filled final days.

Why do they do it?

Beyond simply being animal lovers, SPAAR’s founders Laura Broklebank and Jennifer Pease saw first-hand the gap that existed for senior animals when it came to finding homes and meeting high costs.  Each had experienced this with her own pets and witnessed it while assisting in local shelters.

On average, older pets tend to be both more expensive to care for and more difficult to find homes for.  This can make for a difficult set of circumstances but it is also exactly the reason why SPAAR exists.  An older pet can be the perfect match for some homes, and SPAAR wants to help make those connections.

How can you help?

As with all the groups that we will be profiling on Better the Burgh, SPAAR has a real need for financial assistance.  Even with the good relationship they enjoy with local vets, the hospice care in particular, can become very costly. Beyond this, in-kind donations are very much appreciated.  SPAAR tries to provide everything necessary for foster parts to care for their cats and dogs: food, toys, cleaning supplies and everything in between.

If you’d be interested in jumping in with both feet, SPAAR is also looking to add to its list of foster homes. There is an application and interview process, but your willingness to open up your home can give SPAAR the ability to meet the needs of even more senior animals from the Pittsburgh area.  Finally, many of the pets currently in foster care are also available for adoption.  The application process is fimilar to that for fostering, but you’d be helping to achieve SPAAR’s ultimate goal by providing a final, loving home for a cat or dog who would relish the chance to curl up next to you, share some warmth, and receive a thorough ear scratching.

If SPAAR sound like an organization you’d like to get behind, please visit their website via one of the links above to learn more.  And keep your eyes open for the fun events they are scheduled around town.  I’ll close with a little video I stumbled across that extols the virtues of owning an older dog.  I think you’ll find it is five minutes well spent.

Extravagant Love Makeover

Prior to my time in Pittsburgh I spent a few years working with an organization that provided respite care for homeless men and women in Washington, D.C. Most would come in broken, and hurting by a life lived on the streets.   Not infrequently, within a few days of receiving care, a new look would come across their faces.

Major problems don’t get solved in one day or even in a few weeks. But being cared for and the recognition that you are loved, can go a long way towards changing an attitude of hopelessness into a belief that more may just be possible. This is an approach that Denise Grave’s Extravagant Love Makeover Project has embraced by showering its participants with a day of attention, care, and, yes, love. Most of the big problems will still remain, but have no doubt: one day can indeed have a lasting impact for good.

What does Extravagant Love do?

On the surface, the Extravagant Love Project is a day of pampering each November for women who are in the midst of experiencing the most difficult sets of circumstances that life can throw at them. Women from shelters throughout the city are paired with volunteers who give them treatment that rivals the most luxurious spas in town. They spend the afternoon receiving manicures, pedicures, facials, massages, a new hairdo, and a new outfit. After this, they are whisked to a lavish ceremony hosted by the Pittsburgh Project, complete with dinner and a fashion show that allows the women to be the stars of the evening.

Where the Extravagant Love Makeover really makes its impact is in the genuine love with which these services are shared. It’s hard to really grasp the impact of what being made to feel special means to a person who’s life circumstances have put her in a place where she often ignored or rejected by the people around her.

The project’s founder, Denise Graves, works to make sure that all participants are the recipients of unconditional love throughout the day. Volunteers are prepped with training in regard to some of the how’s and why’s of homelessness, and are encouraged to allow natural friendship to grow as they remind the women that they are indeed loved.

 Why do they do it?

Ms. Graves makes it clear that the Extravagant Love Makeover is the outflow of her faith in God and the love that she has received. Each of us has a story, and we truly have no idea what another person has gone through to lead her to the place that she is in life now. Even at our very lowest points, our stories are not over. As long as there is life there can be hope. Often it takes some real encouragement and a tangible expression of love to begin believing that.

Ms. Graves notes that so many of the messages we hear in the present day tend to break things down into categories of “us” and “them.” But with the Extravagant Love Makeover, volunteers are looking to embrace what she calls “the power of we”. We are all made in God’s image. We are all important, and we all deserve to be recipients of love.

 How can you help?

With regards to immediate help, the needs are primarily financial. It takes a lot to organize this special day for the 100+ women who will have love lavished on them this November. The outfits, jewelry, and the full spa treatment are costly. If you are moved to help, donations are tax deductible and very much appreciated.

In the long term, there is a vision of growing the Extravagant Love Project here in Pittsburgh and in other cities. A plan for maintaining the relationships through ongoing friendships between the participants and volunteers is being developed. Conference weekends are being planned to help prepare volunteers and spread the vision to other locations.

To learn more, I’d recommend visiting the organization’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/Extravagant-Love-Makeover-894707130599900/?fref=ts

You can reach out through their message button to find out about volunteering with, or donating to, this 501c3 organization.

 


<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/109855364″>Extravagant Love Makeover | Our Stories</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/savisky”>Michael Savisky</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

 

 

Let’s Get this Started

I want Better the Burgh to be a place where people can come to be encouraged by all the good people and good things going on in the city of Pittsburgh.   At this point, my vision is pretty simple.  I want to visit as many charities, ministries, and non-profits serving the Pittsburgh metro area as I possibly can.  I want to get a feel for what they are doing and volunteer whenever possible.  And I want to share those experiences with you in the hopes that you might find a group that you feel connected to.

We all have various reasons for caring and wanting to help.  Sometimes it just seems hard to know where to begin or where to turn to start that process.  I’d like Better the Burgh to be that place for you.  Come here to learn about where good things are happening.  Maybe you’ll volunteer.  Maybe you’ll pray.  Maybe you’ll give money.  Maybe you’ll just help spread the word.  Any and all of those choice would be a great addition to what’s going on.

We are all operating with limited resources in some way, shape, or form.  Better the Burgh can be a short cut for you to join with your community to strengthen the work that is already being done.  Please read and please respond if and when you find a mission that calls your name.