Theresa Cygrymus looked around the hall at Prince of Peace Parish, a Catholic Church on Pittsburgh’s South Side, and shook her head.
“It’s already nine o’clock, usually we have stuff cooking already," she said.
Cygrymus knows the drill. At 78, she’s been volunteering for the church all her life. On a Saturday in late October, Cygrymus and a church group called The Christian Mothers were preparing to churn out hundreds of dozens of pierogis to sell. All the money they make supports the church and its outreach.
“The parish is important to me," she said. "I grew up here, lived three doors away, and it was a more closely-knit community. To me it’s important to help the church.”
Joan Vaulet marched across the room. She was red-cheeked and covered with flour. As the group’s president, she was orchestrating the production. She interrupted Cygrymus to hand her a circle of dough. “Is this thin enough or do you want it thinner?” she asked.
“Oh no, that’s perfect. Perfect,” Cygrymus said as Vaulet turned back to the kitchen.
“They always come to me, I’m sort of the grandmother here,” she said with a laugh.
Women helped themselves to coffee and donuts and then settled into their stations: the lone man in the group rolled out dough, which a mom-and-son-team cut into circles. Three women used ice cream scoops to lay out rows of potato-and-cheese pierogi filling. Once they’d filled a tray, it was delivered to the pinchers: a squad of older ladies who sealed the pierogis to prepare for boiling.
Donna Janiak said it’s important to give back. And as far as the election, and the future of the government, it’s all a lot easier to handle when you’re eating well.
“Throw some extra butter and onions on it, it’ll all go down.”
Janet Sundy said she and her son have become regulars at the biannual event; it helps the church, and it’s fun.
“You have to believe in something bigger than yourself. You are responsible for your community.”
Back in the kitchen, Vaulet picked up a pan of onions to add to the mixer. She said she believes in volunteering, so much so that she’s now in her second term as president, though she took office reluctantly.
“I’m not real good at standing up here and speaking. I’m real shy. And everybody said, ‘Well, Joan, you should do it cause you do a lot for the church.' They want me to run again, so I guess I’m stuck with it now.”
In 2015, 28 percent of Pennsylvanians volunteered, spending time to mentor youth, collect food, and pitch in for religious organizations. But is volunteering and contributing to the public good part of our civic duty?
Barb Feige is deputy director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. She said our civic duty is actually pretty narrow.
“What does the government require you to do? Pay your taxes. Jury duty. There’s the draft.”
Some would say obeying the law. But here’s the thing, said Feige:
“There’s tensions in all of those things, right? We as a society need to determine what our role and responsibility is to government.”
Part of our burden as citizens, said Feige, is figuring out what it means to be a good citizen. But that’s going beyond civic duty. That’s the stuff of building society.
One block at a time
Chuck Durham wants to rebuild his neighborhood. For much of his life he’s lived in Homewood, a struggling community in Pittsburgh’s east end.
“You know, a city’s only as good as its weakest community. And Homewood right now is the one that needs the love.”
Each month, Durham attends a meeting of Operation Better Block, a nonprofit that represents residents and business owners in Homewood. OBB and Durham want to see development come to the community. Durham remembers how it used to be: “We had theaters, supermarkets, drugstores, a Buster Brown shoe store. You didn’t have to leave Homewood, Downtown was a special trip.”
But Durham said for development to happen in a way that doesn’t push out residents, he and others have to attend these meetings and make their voices heard.
“Don’t cry foul if you don’t stay involved,” he said.
Putting down roots
Across town in Greenfield, on a cold Saturday morning, volunteers organized by Tree Pittsburgh climbed a steep hillside to plant trees. The slope was out of the sun and covered in vines and leaves.
Geoff Campbell helped his daughters tamp down the dirt around their wisp of a tree. He said it might not seem like a lot, but everyone doing their own little part adds up.
“There’s a lot of hard work that kind of keeps it held together, and things don’t improve unless you actually make a concerted effort," he said.
Several saplings away from the Campbells, Gail Woodward dug her feet into the soil the way a pitcher does. Grounded, she started digging a broad hole, whacking away at a particularly stubborn root. Woodward said there’s not much she can do to impact the nation.
“I feel like that’s why you can get involved in your community and make a difference and just try to make it as better of a place as you can. Yeah, I don’t know that I can really make too big of an impact, but I’ll sure try," she said with a laugh.
Despite the cold and the resistance of the soil, the volunteers managed to get 150 trees into the ground. Even though it’ll be hard to see for a while, the saplings will start to hold the hillside in place, keep storm water from surging into the streets, and clean the air. It may take a few years, but the neighborhood will start to look a lot different. And, hopefully, better.