Pittsburgh Volunteer Citizen of the Year Award Gala hosts everyday heroes

| Sunday, March 31, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Doing unto others received a well-deserved plug on March 30, where five finalists were being lauded during the Pittsburgh Volunteer Citizen of the Year Award Gala.

“This is our second year. Last year, it was pretty informal and we thought, ‘This is our hometown — we need to do it big,' ” said Julie Hendry.

A joint effort from Direct Energy and Trib Total Media, the event at the Heinz History Center saw friends and family rally around the men and women of the hour, who were humbly taking a bow.

“I think it's absolutely phenomenal. She's my inspiration,” said Jennifer Strang of her friend, Maria Vondas. Vondas created Christianpalooza in honor of her son, Christian, who passed away from terminal brain cancer. Proceeds from Christianpalooza benefit the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

WPXI's Jennifer Abney did the honors as emcee, “You all deserve this and so much more,” she shared, before welcoming politico Rich Fitzgerald to the podium. “Pittsburgh is a great place ... the five people being honored here tonight are really emblematic about what makes (this city) so special,” he said.

Sentiment shared as the “congratulations” came fast and furious for fellow finalists Lutual and Sarah Love and their anti-bullying campaign within the A+ School districts, Carol McCaskey and her Backpack Initiative to Fight Hunger program at Deer Lakes Elementary, and Roberta Hall (aka, Ms. Bert) for a tireless dedication to the Wallace Avenue Soup Kitchen of Naomi's Way — which includes a 4 a.m. wake-up call.

“She's set the bar for us,” said Hall's pastor, the Rev. Thelma Mitchell. “She's remarkable. You feel like you need to run to keep up with her.”

From the start, general consensus resolved that all of the finalists were applause-worthy examples of selflessness, although it was Teresa Amelio who walked away with top honors. A volunteer for the North Hills Community Outreach, she donated land to establish the Rosalinda Sauro Sirianni Garden (named after her mother), which grows fresh fruits and veggies that are distributed to families in need through local food banks. More than 300 fellow volunteers of the project have provided nearly 10,000 pounds of food to more than 1,000 families.

“I think it's fantastic ... just to think about what a couple can accomplish is really amazing,” offered DE's Todd Sandford.

Kate Benz is the social columnist for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at kbenz@tribweb.com or 412-380-8515.

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