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5 Pittsburgh organizations supporting our most vulnerable children–and inspiring us to help

Deanna Lee
March19/ 2015

With tons of kid-friendly activities, play spaces and learning opportunities, Pittsburgh truly is Kidsburgh. But even in this most wonderful city to raise a family, there are children who are hurting. Whatever is behind a child’s struggle—grief, illness, financial hardship, violence–we wish we could snap our fingers and make it go away. Unfortunately, the underlying problems are not so easy to fix. But there is hope hiding in even the darkest places in this city.

In this article we highlight five Pittsburgh organizations working tirelessly on the front lines of the place we never want to go–the place where our children feel pain. Guided by visionary leaders and inspired missions, these organizations support our most vulnerable kids and their families in their times of need.

Spreading birthday cheer: Beverly’s Birthdays

Each year there are hundreds of children in the Pittsburgh area whose birthdays pass by silently. Struggling with financial hardship, their families are unable to provide even the simplest of birthday celebrations. But thanks to Beverly’s Birthdays (featured photo above), many of these Pittsburgh kids are now getting the birthday cheer every child deserves.

Partnering with 30 agencies across six counties, Beverly’s Birthdays hosts parties, gives presents and delivers “birthdays in a bag” to local food banks and shelters. “Many of these families are trying to meet their most basic needs like finding shelter and food. In that environment, more complex needs like self-esteem and love are often neglected,” says Megs Yunn, the organization’s founder. “Beverly’s Birthdays is about reminding these children that no matter what their experiences or background they deserve to feel special and loved on their birthday.”

Yunn’s inspiration for Beverly’s Birthdays came during a chance encounter with a young girl named Beverly while volunteering at an afterschool program. The two were talking, and the girl mentioned that she had never had a birthday party—not even a birthday cake—of her own. So when Yunn heard about the BE BIG In Your Community Contest, she saw a chance to help kids like Beverly. Up against 1,000 other entries from all over the country, her “big idea” was selected as a prizewinner. Since that time, Yunn and her volunteers have been spreading birthday cheer to kids in Pittsburgh and beyond.

Invoking the words of the wise Dr. Seuss, Yunn reminds us, “Sometimes you never know the true value of a moment until it becomes a memory.” Armed with joyful memories of birthday parties they never thought they’d have, Yunn hopes to empower these children to hope for a brighter future. “The more positive links in the chain of a child’s experience, the happier and healthier future they can have.”

How you can help: From assembling treat bags to baking cakes and volunteering at parties, Beverly’s Birthdays offers lots of ways for volunteers to get involved. More volunteer information is here. If you would like to donate, click here. And if you’d like to attend a great party yourself, check here for information on Beverly’s Birthday’s “An Evening of Birthday Cheer” fundraising party at The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh on April 30. 

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Child at Jeremiah’s Place, Photo courtesy of Jeremiah’s Place

Providing a refuge for families in crisis: Jeremiah’s Place

Each day Pittsburgh families face unexpected situations that threaten to tear them apart. Death, sickness, job loss, violence–no family is immune from a sudden change in fortune. For the children living through these crises, life’s new reality can be a scary place. But thanks to Jeremiah’s Place, Pittsburgh children now have somewhere to go when emergencies–big or small–strike their families.

A crisis can often be a tipping point, says Dr. Lynne Williams, co-founder of Jeremiah’s Place. She describes how, for parents in highly stressful situations without adequate social support, a crisis can turn into child trauma or even abuse. Dedicated to avoiding these potential negative outcomes, Jeremiah’s Place provides free round-the-clock emergency childcare. “Even though children are only here for a short time, they get the support and nurturing they need during a very vulnerable time for their families,” says LouAnn Ross executive director of Jeremiah’s Place.

From its colorful mural and familiar toys to its handmade blankets and rocking chair, Jeremiah’s Place feels like a home away from home, where children can feel safe. Ross relates the story of a boy who came to Jeremiah’s Place only a few hours after witnessing his father throw his mother down the stairs. “When he first arrived he was so timid and withdrawn,” she says. “But within fifteen minutes of being here–in a safe place with people who are present and dedicated–he was laughing and playing again.”

Not only does Jeremiah’s Place offer free short-term childcare, it also connects families with community services that can provide ongoing support to prevent future crises. Given the tools to get them back on track, Ross believes that these families can dream of a stable, brighter future.

How you can help: Jeremiah’s Place needs volunteer help in many capacities including childcare, collection drives for books, diapers, backpacks and food, knitting “comfort bears” and representing the organization at outreach events. To find out more, click here or attend the next volunteer orientation on May 27. And if your family ever needs to use the crisis nursery, call the 24-hour number, 412-924-0726 or email family@jeremiahsplace.org.

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Handmade quilt square at The Highmark Caring Place, Photo courtesy of The Highmark Caring Place

Helping families grieve: The Highmark Caring Place

The death of a cherished loved one–especially a parent–is one of the most traumatic experiences for a child. And without the cognitive abilities to fully express their loss, it’s easy to forget that these children grieve deeply. But thanks to The Highmark Caring Place, Pittsburgh children have a place to heal when they lose their loved ones.

“At the Caring Place,  children, teens and adults are given the opportunity to grieve. They aren’t told to get over it. They aren’t told that it’s time to move on,” says Terese Vorsheck executive director of the organization. The Highmark Caring Place helps children and their caregivers cope with their loss through peer support groups facilitated by trained volunteers.

“They have the opportunity to talk with each other about the death, how it has affected them, their feelings about it and the memories of the person who died,” says Vorsheck. Children also work together to create collages with pictures describing their loved ones, memory boxes they fill with cherished mementos and quilt squares representing the lives of their loved ones. These squares are then sewn into memorial quilts that hang on the walls of The Highmark Caring Place.

Roy Smetana has seen the impact. When his wife, Mary, passed away in 2013, his children were only 3 and 5 years old, and the family was tasked with healing after losing a beloved wife and mother. Smetana and his children began visiting The Highmark Caring Place several months after Mary’s death. “My kids learned how to talk about their memories and feelings openly and comfortably,” Smetana says. “They understood that they weren’t the only ones who lost someone, so it didn’t become overwhelming or devastating for them.”

After their time at The Highmark Caring Place, Vorsheck believes that families can successfully move forward with their lives without forgetting the impact of the loved ones they lost. “Working through the process instead of pushing it away gives them the opportunity to learn to live with it and to discover a ‘new normal’ in their life without their loved one.”

How you can help: The Caring Place offers its services completely free and thus relies heavily on volunteer involvement. To volunteer you must be 21 years or older, provide required clearances and complete a 26-hour training. Click here for more information. Also, any monetary donations are matched dollar-for-dollar by Highmark, Inc.

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Former hospital family with their Zack Pack, Photo courtesy of Zachary’s Mission

Supporting hospital families: Zachary’s Mission

As a hub for world-class pediatric care, Pittsburgh is home to many children facing serious medical illnesses–some of whom spend their entire lives within the confines of hospitals and long-term care facilities. For many of these fragile kids, their families are their bedrock. But the emotional and physical toll on these so-called “hospital families” can be overwhelming. Thanks to Zachary’s Mission these families are now receiving the much-needed TLC that they deserve.

Patricia Vince, the executive director of Zachary’s Mission, knows exactly what these families are going through. In 2008, her son Zachary was born with a congenital heart defect and eventually passed away–never having seen the world outside hospitals. Inspired by her own experience, Vince created Zachary’s Mission, a nonprofit organization that delivers hundreds of backpacks known as “Zack Packs” to families with sick kids in hospitals and long-term care facilities in the region. Stuffed with simple creature comforts like snacks, toiletries, tissues, water bottles and gas cards, receiving a Zack Pack means that parents “can be there for their child with a few less worries,” says Vince.

When their son Judah required open-heart surgery just one day after he was born, Jessica Kaushansky and her husband spent seven months in the hospital with him. But Kaushansky remembers the day that some relief arrived in the form of a Zack Pack. “Here were all these little things that we needed but never had the time to get,” says Kaushansky. “From the bag itself to everything inside, it was very clear that someone had thought about this, understood what we were going through and knew how to help.”

For families whose lives are turned upside down by a child’s illness, a Zack Pack can bring much needed hope in a very dark time. “In that situation, you feel very alone. When a Zack Pack or a gas card or something else you need arrives, you know that someone is there for you to help you support your child,” says Kaushanky.

How you can help: Zachary’s Mission’s volunteers help in many different ways, including holding collection drives for snacks and toiletries and stuffing Zack Packs. To find out more, click here. You can also make a tax deductible donation here. The organization also holds an annual gala. Follow its Facebook page for more information on this event. 

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Homewood children creating art with Vanessa German, Photo by Brian Cohen

Creating a sanctuary from violence: ARThouse in Homewood

With disproportionately high rates of violent crimes, families in Homewood are too often affected by loss and bloodshed. But thanks to Vanessa German and her ARThouse, these families now have a creative sanctuary safe from the violence that pervades their streets.

The ARThouse started humbly with German, a nationally-renowned artist, working on creative projects on her own front porch. “The kids would see me out there and would always want to help,” she says. “Eventually, they wouldn’t take no for an answer.” German and the children started creating works of art from the most unlikely of materials. “We used whatever we could find as our canvases–slate from the rooftops of demolished houses. Wood from fixing holes in the walls of my new Homewood house. Bricks. Cardboard. Shoeboxes. The porch itself. Anything and everything became art.”

With increasing community involvement, German quickly outgrew her original space and got permission from the Allegheny Housing Rehabilitation Corporation to use a nearby vacant home. And now, the ARThouse is entering a new era. Thanks to a successful Indiegogo campaign and lots of hard work, it has a permanent home in the neighborhood.

Stephanie Littlejohn, a neighbor of the ARThouse and a grandmother of children who visit it, doesn’t mind that the creativity sometimes spills into her own yard. For her, the community impact is worth it. “The kids can express their feelings in a safe place that’s full of love,” Littlejohn says. “They feel special and like what they’re doing is important. That’s everything this neighborhood needs.” For the young people of Homewood, coming to the ARThouse is not only an escape—a joyful detour from the stress of a violent community—it’s also a place where hope and self-worth are created right alongside the paintings and sculptures.

How you can help: Like any house, the ARThouse requires utility payments and regular upkeep not to mention lots of art supplies. German is always accepting donations for the ARThouse. You can email her at aveasa@icloud.com for more information.

At Kidsburgh we’re inspired by each of the incredible organizations supporting Pittsburgh kids and families, including these five. We hope you share our admiration for the ideas and the people that drive them. But we also hope your support doesn’t stop there. Take it one step further. Volunteer, donate, hold a collection drive. Your support could have a profound impact on the Pittsburgh families who need you!

Featured photo: Beverly’s Birthdays, Photo courtesy of Beverly’s Birthdays

This article was written by Deanna Lee with contributions by Nadine Champsi.

Deanna Lee

Deanna earnestly covers all the people and events that make Pittsburgh the best place to raise a kid. When she's not writing, you might find her running the streets of the East End. cooking big meals in her tiny kitchen, and spending time with her family.