90.5 WESA Celebrates People Making A Difference

Western Pennsylvania has a strong tradition of neighborhood, personal and community commitment. Our pride in pulling together goes far beyond supporting our deep-rooted sports teams. 90.5 WESA Celebrates People Making a Difference honors the individuals that are making a difference in people's lives on the ground level and reminding us we are all truly a part of each other's lives.

This special series, supported by UPMC, will highlight, honor and celebrate Western Pennsylvanians who are unsung heroes daring to make a difference to others in our community.

90.5 WESA PA listening area counties:
Allegheny, Beaver, Washington, Westmoreland, Butler, Armstrong, Cambria, Somerset, Bedford, Fayette, Indiana

This project is made possible by a generous contribution from UPMC.

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.”

Debbi Casini Klein / 90.5 WESA

Read and listen to a story about Annie Yonas and Griffin Kerstetter as part of a series honoring the individuals who make a difference in people’s lives: 90.5 WESA Celebrates People Making a Difference.

Three years ago, when Annie and Griffin  were in second grade, they decided they wanted to do something to help the homeless stay warm in the winter.

Debbi Casini Klein / 90.5 WESA

Read and listen to a story about Paul Abernathy as part of a series honoring the individuals who make a difference in people’s lives: 90.5 WESA Celebrates People Making a Difference.

What looks like an ordinary thrift shop on Centre Avenue in the Hill District is so much more. It’s called FOCUS, the Fellowship of Orthodox Christians United to Serve.

Debbi Casini Klein / 90.5 WESA

Read and listen to a story about Ian Cummins as part of a series honoring the individuals who make a difference in people’s lives: 90.5 WESA Celebrates People Making a Difference.

Debbi Casini Klein / 90.5 WESA

Read and listen to a story about “Miss Audie” Hart as part of a series honoring the individuals who make a difference in people’s lives: 90.5 WESA Celebrates People Making a Difference.

Debbi Casini Klein / 90.5 WESA

Read and listen to a story about Deirdre Kane and Dora Walmsley as part of a series honoring the individuals who make a difference in people’s lives: 90.5 WESA Celebrates People Making a Difference.

Deirdre Kane lived in Galway, where big grocery stores were scarce.

Ella Horvat, Collecting Shoes For Orphans

Sep 26, 2014
Debbi Casini Klein / 90.5 WESA

Read and listen to a story about Ella Horvat as part of a series honoring the individuals who make a difference in people’s lives: 90.5 WESA Celebrates People Making a Difference.

Eleven-year old Ella Horvat is a sixth grader at Dorseyville Middle School. She was born in Guatemala and was adopted by her American parents, Jill and Michael, at the age of two.

Debbi Casini Klein / 90.5 WESA

Read and listen to a story about Todd DePastino as part of a series honoring the individuals who make a difference in people’s lives: 90.5 WESA Celebrates People Making a Difference.

“Nobody else really knows and understands what this kind of thing means to the veterans that come to it.”

Debbi Casini Klein / 90.5 WESA

Read and listen to a story about Harold Hicks as part of a series honoring the individuals who make a difference in people’s lives: 90.5 WESA Celebrates People Making a Difference.

It’s called The Miracle Field of Murrysville: a special baseball field constructed for anyone age 10 and older with any physical or mental challenges.

Debbi Casini Klein / 90.5 WESA

Read and listen to a story about Erika Strasburg as part of a series honoring the individuals who make a difference in people’s lives: 90.5 WESA Celebrates People Making a Difference.

Erika, a singer/actress and graduate from CMU drama school, has used her talent to comfort the children at Children’s Hospital, where she volunteers every week to go room to room dressed as a princess.

Debbi Casini Klein / 90.5 WESA

Read and listen to a story about Lyndsey Sickler as part of a series honoring the individuals who make a difference in people’s lives: 90.5 WESA Celebrates People Making a Difference.

Since she came out almost 20 years ago, Lyndsey Sickler has become a tireless advocate for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals.

Carolyn Hare, Advocating For Those With Autism

Aug 22, 2014
Debbi Casini Klein / 90.5 WESA

Read and listen to a story about Carolyn Hare as part of a series honoring the individuals who make a difference in people’s lives: 90.5 WESA Celebrates People Making a Difference.

Carolyn Hare has been an advocate for those with autism for more than 20 years, but she never realized how providing a creative outlet could have such an impact on their lives.   

Mike Williams, Laboring Out Of Love

Aug 15, 2014
Debbi Casini Klein / 90.5 WESA

Read and listen to a story about Mike Williams as part of a series honoring the individuals who make a difference in people’s lives: 90.5 WESA Celebrates People Making a Difference.

Thirty-year old landscaper Mike Williams had been helping Sally, an elderly woman, with the landscaping of her house and noticed the inside was in shambles.  

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