90.5 WESA Celebrates People Making a Difference

Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 WESA

For years, Pittsburgh-based medical relief charity Global Links has taken donations of wheelchairs, crutches and other mobility products.

Chris Meyer started volunteering with the group in 2010 after a devastating earthquake hit Haiti, to help prepare those donated devices before they’re shipped to people in need.

Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 WESA

For someone in hospice, a song might not cure them, but it could help brighten their final days.

“It’s not about healing, it’s not about making people feel better,” said Cindy Harris. “I often say that what we do is traveling music. We are all walking the same path in life… the only difference is that the person we’re singing to, they’re much closer to the end of the path.”

Harris is the director of the Pittsburgh Threshold Choir, which sends small groups of singers to Pittsburgh-area hospice facilities. The roughly 20 members offer bedside songs to those who are ill.

Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 WESA

Along South Aiken Avenue in Friendship, a sign reading, “Caution … Tomatoes” sits proudly on a utility pole.

It’s referencing the nearby community garden.

“I really wanted to create something where people understand how important it is to connect with nature and also understand how easy it is to grow your own food,” said Octopus Garden founder Kristin Hughes.

Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 WESA

Throughout life, a person experiences many firsts – a first kiss, first pet and even a first bike ride.

“When I started riding a bicycle it was one of those things that was life changing for me,” said 16-year-old Rhys Rocher. “Doing things like being able to go for a bike ride with your family is something that we take for granted and I would love to share that experience with someone else.”  

Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 WESA

When a child leaves their home for foster care, they often have to leave their belongings behind. And if a social workers is able to grab a few things, they’re usually jumbled in a trash bag.

Foster Love Project aims to ease that process by offering a new bag filled with comforting items like new pajamas, a stuffed animal and blanket, we well as essentials such as toothbrush, toothpaste and soap.

Melinda Roeder / 90.5 WESA

When Conner Hagins was 9 years old, his father had a double bypass surgery.

While recovering, his father was given a teddy bear to hold against his chest while coughing or sneezing in order to help protect his chest wounds. But it was only cardiac surgery patients who were given teddy bears, Hagins found.

“From that moment it was almost a light bulb idea,” Hagins said.

Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 WESA

Tracy Organ Cease spends every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at the Northside Common Ministries kitchen preparing lunch. Coffee in hand, he also meets with his lunchtime diners and makes sure they’re connected to any other services they may need.

“It’s very humbling to be at the point where you may need to go and get this kind of assistance to be able to eat today,” Cease said.

And Cease would know. It wasn’t long ago that he was the one getting a free lunch, rather than making it. That’s why he tries to provide an inviting atmosphere to those he serves.

Denise Ford

A group of Pittsburghers is lending a helping hand to children in Haiti.

The Pittsburgh-based Yahve-Jire Children's Foundation operates an orphanage in Haiti for 25 children, which is completely funded through donations and services provided by volunteers primarily from the Pittsburgh region. 

A group of locals set off for Haiti on Saturday for the next mission trip, led by Denise Ford, a volunteer from South Fayette Township.

Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 WESA

For some receiving treatment for cancer, Mrs. Claus doesn’t just visit at Christmas.

“Our mission statement is to bring comfort, hope, encouragement and love to the (person) who has been recently diagnosed with cancer,” said Jeana Watenpool, founder of the Mrs. Claus Club of the North Hills.

The Mrs. Claus Club, which delivers gifts minus the sleigh year-round, has given out more than 500 comfort baskets since it was formed seven years ago. In the last seven months alone it has delivered more than 70 baskets. 

Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 WESA

Luann Monteleone focused more seriously on painting after her husband died. She said she found it helped her deal with the pain. Then one sleepless night, she asked herself what she was going to do with her life to make sure her husband’s death was “not a waste.”

“I prayed and I just got the idea … and the name in one night,” Monteleone said. That was the birth of Art. Healing. Hearts.

Caitlin Regan / Flickr

For 13 years, Edith Davidson and Diana Cooper have met with women to talk about all aspects of their roles as new mothers.  

For the last several years, the gatherings, known as “Stork Bites,” have been held at the Sharon Community Presbyterian church in Moon Township. Davidson and Cooper divide the Stork Bites meetings into six-week classes, with many of the mothers attending multiple sessions. 

Melinda Roeder / 90.5 WESA

The idea that pit bulls aren't friendly is one that Hello Bully founder Daisy Balawejde has worked for more than a decade to squash.

“When people meet pit bulls, they’re always like, ‘Oh my gosh, this one’s so nice,’" she said. “That’s the pit bull, that’s the actual dog.” 

Hello Bully is a nonprofit rescue center that retrains pit bulls used in dog fighting and transforms them into family pets.

Balawejde started the rescue in 2005 and has recovered more than 1,500 dogs since then.

Luv Purohit

Hundreds of summer camps are available to Pittsburgh youths each year, but for some parents there is really only one choice that makes sense.

“We wanted to create a space specifically for young people who have the experience of refugee and immigrant students,” said Jenna Baron, who four years ago founded the Pittsburgh Refugee Youth Summer Enrichment (PRYSE) Academy. “We organize a three-week summer program for immigrant refugee students in Allegheny County."

Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 WESA

In November of 2013, Bert Dorazio decided he wanted to be part of World Kindness Day, so he called up a friend.

“I said, ‘Why don’t we go down to a grocery store, get in line behind somebody and after they check out all their groceries let’s pay for their groceries?’” Dorazio said.

Dorazio said his friend thought it was a good idea and after hanging out near the check out line at the Giant Eagle on the South Side for a few minutes they chose a woman with a cart full of food.

Not Another Hostel

It all started with Jon Potter being, what he called, homeless with a purpose.

“I was just traveling around, seeing the world and a lot of people would take me in and help me,” said Potter of his life in his late teens and early twenties. “I would ask people like, ‘Hey, how can I repay you for helping me?’ And they would always say, ‘Just help out somebody in the future.’”

South Hills Interfaith Movement / Facebook

Every Monday and Friday Marisa Niwa spends time with her father volunteering at the South Hills Interfaith Movement, or SHIM, food pantry.

“I volunteer and keep things neat and organized," said Niwa's father, Joe Murray. 

Murray said he, his wife and their daughter have a long history of doing volunteer work for people with intellectual disabilities, but when the opportunity at SHIM came up, they thought they would give it a try.

Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 FM WESA

It all started in 1971 when  Jimmy Cvetic grabbed a 13-year-old boy for stealing tape decks out of cars. He didn’t arrest him and less than two years later the boy was dead from a drug overdose.

“That bothered me,” said Cvetic, who is now retired from a 35-year career with the Allegheny County Police. “If I would have said something or did something.” 

Cvetic said the boy has always represented innocence to him. His response was to open a free boxing gym in downtown Pittsburgh.

Rebekah Zook / 90.5 WESA

Debbie Thackrah said she never expected her initiative, Feeding the Spirit, to be as large as it is today, considering its humble beginnings in 2011.

“My running partner and I ... started running with five dollar bills to slip under their knapsacks so it would be there when they woke up,” she said. Thackrah, on her morning runs, was seeing an ever-growing homeless population in her town of Greensburg, spend the night in open, public spaces.

“It made me really upset,” she said.

Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 WESA

Each month, about 20 volunteers help to hand out food to more than 200 individuals and families at the Westinghouse Valley Food Pantry in Turtle Creek. 

Among those volunteers is Rose Smeltzer, who serves as the pantry's coordinator. 

“This is my passion," Smeltzer said. "It is what I was born to do, I guess." 

Smeltzer also recruited her husband, children and grandchildren to help at the food pantry each month. 

Rebekah Zook / 90.5 WESA

Deanna Blincow has been working with the Orphan Care Ministry since its conception in 2007, and serving as its director since 2012.

Within this time frame, she has witnessed at least 25 families she knows personally go through the intense process of adopting a child, and has counseled countless others.

“My husband and I adopted two children out of an orphanage in Russia, so we did an international adoption about 17 years ago. That’s really what started it for us,” Blincow said.

Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 WESA

In 2012, Lynda Carr lost her son Charles to a heroin addiction. Three years later, her stepson was killed in a drug-related car accident.

“Most people probably would not recover from that, but in spite of her loss, Lynda has chosen to give back,” said one person, whom Lynda sponsors as part of Nar-Anon, which relies on the anonymity of its members.  “She gives back by helping people like me every day.”

Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 WESA

A giving circle is growing in the South Hills and at its center is Jennifer McDowell.

“I’ve volunteered for a million different things over the years, but this is the thing that really sparked my imagination and made me want to do something different,” said McDowell of Mt. Lebanon.

Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 WESA

If you walk through the doors of the North Hills Community Outreach office in Allison Park, it's very possible that it will be Joyce Rabinovitz who greets you with a smile. According to the charity, Rabinovitz has logged more than 3,000 volunteer hours with NHCO, since 2007.

Rebekah Zook / 90.5 WESA

Joe Divack attributes volunteer John Erickson’s “all-star” status to his attitude.

“It’s his sense of humor," Divack said. "And he really likes doing it. He might not always admit it."

Joe and John have teamed up together for Allegheny Cleanways’ Dump Busters program for four years, with no signs of stopping any time soon.

Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 FM WESA

Faith Denson’s son was sentenced to prison in 2009. That moment changed her life.

She decided to launch an all-volunteer ministry to help keep inmates in contact with their children. 

Rebekah Zook / 90.5 WESA

Michael David Battle spends his time doing many things: he’s the author of two biographies (and is in the process of writing another), he delivers sermons at community events, he orchestrates town hall meetings, digital story-telling projects and yearly retreats for Pittsburgh-area leaders to share their ideas. He even travels to the White House on occasion.

But his true brainchild is the Garden of Peace Project, an initiative that is rapidly bringing together, and aiming to improve the lives of, members of Pittsburgh’s LGBT community.

Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 WESA

About 80 percent of the work done at Pittsburgh’s senior center on the South Side is done by volunteers. And lately, much of it has been done by one man: Charlie Mathews.

“To have Charlie here as a person that is just willing to help and is really good with people is very crucial to what we do,” said Sarah Johnston, director of the South Side Market House.

Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 FM WESA

There are about 150,000 men and women serving in the U.S. military overseas, according to the Defense Manpower Data Center. 

Some of them regularly receive care packages from people they have never met, through programs like Soldiers’ Angels and Chaplains Wings.

Mary Jo Magoc has been sending care packages and cards through those programs since 2009.  She began with individual soldiers through Soldiers’ Angels, where she “adopted” four members of the military deployed overseas. She keeps in touch with three of them, even though they have returned home. Among them is Chris Samuel. 

Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 WESA

Every other Monday night, the basement of the Jefferson Avenue Methodist Church in Washington, Pa. is turned into a soup kitchen and a doctor's office. It’s called the “WeCare Street Outreach,” and it's run by Dr. Monica Speicher.

Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 WESA

When 20-year-old Sage Capozzi died from a heroin overdose in 2012 his father, Carmen Capozzi, said he lay on the floor for two days until he heard his son’s voice say, “Dad get up. They’re not bad kids. You have to help.”

A few days later, one of Sage’s friends came to Capozzi’s house to show Carmen a Facebook page created as a memorial to Sage. That page led to the creation of the Sage’s Army page.

“There were 1,800 people signed up in 24 hours, asking me for help or telling me their situation,” said Capozzi. “My wife said to me, ‘What are you going to do?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. I’m just going to talk.’ And that’s what we did, we just talked.”

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