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Families across Pittsburgh find reward in volunteering together

| Monday, Dec. 16, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Pamela Abdalla of Fox Chapel and her daughter Gabby, 6, place cookies on trays for the residents of The Salvation Army Family Caring Center in East Liberty to enjoy Sunday, November 24, 2013.  For the past 18 years, Pamela has been giving of her time and love to the Salvation Army.  This night there were snacks, a face painter, a magician, and a balloon artist for the residents.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Pamela Abdalla of Fox Chapel and her daughter Gabby, 6, place cookies on trays for the residents of The Salvation Army Family Caring Center in East Liberty to enjoy Sunday, November 24, 2013. For the past 18 years, Pamela has been giving of her time and love to the Salvation Army. This night there were snacks, a face painter, a magician, and a balloon artist for the residents.

At The Salvation Army Family Caring Center, Pamela Abdalla wraps a pajama-clad toddler in a warm hug. Nearby, Abdalla's son, Omar, 14, juggles as a group of smiling children applaud. Her daughter, Gabby, 6, giggles as she organizes a tray of cookies.

The Abdalla family of Fox Chapel is a fixture at the East Liberty center, which serves as a temporary home to people in need. Together, they visit with residents, host parties, bring in food and entertainment and more.

“We all work together,” Pamela says. “My children are fully on board. They get it.”

Across the Pittsburgh region, there are many families like the Abdallas who use volunteering as a meaningful way to spend time with one another. The benefits of bonding and sharing experiences while helping others is invaluable, they say.

Smiles with The Salvation Army

Having worked in family court as a litigator for years, Pamela Abdalla has heard countless stories of heartache and struggle. Those stories have motivated her to give back for almost two decades.

“The most important thing is to bring a smile and a hug,” Pamela says. “It's important for them to know the community has not forgotten them.”

Pamela founded a committee that brings cultural, educational and social programs to the center. She also started the annual Garbage Bag Gala, where women wear gowns designed from trash bags and donate the money they would have spent on a designer dress.

When her husband's law firm took the family to Abu Dhabi, Pamela formed and was chairwoman of The Salvation Army's Middle East Advisory Board. The family returned to America last year, and since then, is back to helping in the 'Burgh.

The Family Caring Center can house up to 36 people. It offers social work and job-training services for adults and education assistance for kids. Pamela Abdalla is notorious for getting friends and family to visit and help with events, her children included.

“I like to get to interact with the kids,” Omar says.

At a recent holiday party, residents were treated to a magic show. As it started, groups of children gathered around the Abdallas, some climbing onto Pamela's lap. When it ended, Pamela caught sight of a newcomer mom in the back of the room.

“Excuse me,” she said, tapping the woman's shoulder. “I didn't get a hug yet.”

As Pamela wrapped her arms around her, both smiled ear to ear.

Gratitude for Children's

For the past four years, Solomon and Ethel Jarmell of Stanton Heights have been saying “thank you” to Children's Hospital after enduring a scare no one saw coming.

The Jarmells' son, Mitchell, and his family live in Spain. Several years ago, they were living temporarily in Pittsburgh during Mitchell's sabbatical when his 15-year-old daughter, Sarah, had a stroke. She was treated at Children's. Today, Sarah is healthy and preparing to graduate college.

The Jarmells, who have been married for 56 years, don purple volunteer jackets and visit Children's once a week. Ethel, 80, a retired teacher, helps in the Lemieux Sibling Center, where relatives of patients unwind with games, art projects and more.

“I have the fun stuff,” she says.

Solomon, 83, works in the pediatric intensive care unit, where he makes sure visitors have the proper entrance codes. The work can be emotional, he admits.

“I bear it because of what they did for my granddaughter,” he says.

The pair also volunteers in other capacities. Solomon has been at the Senator John Heinz History Center for years. His goal, he says, is for the couple to make it to 57 years of marriage so he can get a Heinz 57 pickle pin to commemorate the milestone. Watching Ethel sneak a kiss as she leaves her husband at his post, it's clear the pin is pretty much a sure thing.

Providing shelter for Animal Friends

The Viduciches are no strangers to house guests. They nearly always are playing host to an addition as one of Animal Friends' foster families.

Ray and Debbie Viducich and daughters Isabella, 17, and Angela, 14, of Mars, own nine pets. Their five cats and four dogs are often joined by puppies and kittens who haven't found their forever homes yet. Debbie started working with Animal Friends 20 years ago when a story about a dog who'd been thrown from a truck made the local news. She came to the shelter to see the dog and signed up that day.

“I always loved animals growing up,” she says.

It didn't take much prodding to get her daughters on board, as well. At the shelter, the girls walk the dogs, play with the cats and help out any way they can.

“We wanted to do it,” Isabella says.

“Knowing that you're helping save animals is a good feeling to have,” Angela adds.

Though they've had more than 100 foster animals over the years, saying goodbye still can be hard. “But it is so rewarding,” Debbie says. “It is much more good than bad.”

Feeding families with the food bank

Fulfilling people's basic need for food is a family affair for several local volunteers.

Dr. Dawson and Paula Lim of Whitehall have worked with the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank for a decade, doing everything from food distribution, fundraising and produce stands. With Dawson's busy work schedule at Monongahela Valley Hospital, it can be hard for the couple to carve out quality time. Paula says volunteering provides a perfect opportunity for just that.

“This makes us happy,” she says.

Many food bank patrons have stories of strife. Some come to distribution spots with their hands wrapped in electrical tape to shield their hands from the wintry cold. Many don't have coats.

Paula admits it's tough to realize she can't help everyone in need. But the couple is trying.

“It gives back much more than you give,” Paula says.

The Niksic family of Bloomfield understands that sentiment. Mary Beth Niksic and children Sead, 14, and Amila, 12, help the food bank in a variety of ways, including gleaning at local farms. Mary Beth has been involved with the food bank for years and encouraged her children to participate.

“I want to set an example for them so they continue to find opportunities in their lives to help other people,” she says.

The family enjoys the time volunteering allows them to spend together. “When you're with your family, it's a more enjoyable experience,” Sead says.

Witnessing the generosity of others also is inspiring, Amila says. She recalls the time she collected donations at Giant Eagle. One young man donated a large bag of food.

“I remember thinking, ‘How generous for him to give however much money he had to us,' ” she says.

Celebrating the season with Familylinks

One local family spends the weeks leading up to Christmas planning festivities for others.

Elaine Franks and daughters Beth and Laura Bosco throw a party at Familylink's Family Treatment Center in Allentown, which provides a home for women in addiction treatment and their children.

Elaine got involved a decade ago, and soon, her daughters were helping, as well. Now, the event consumes much of their pre-holiday time as they solicit donations, buy presents and prepare decorations. Beth's and Laura's children also help.

“Until you do it, you don't understand,” says Beth Bosco of Mt. Lebanon mother of Anna, 11, and Juliet, 9. The ladies always find a Santa to hand out gifts to the children. They sing songs, eat goodies and take pictures with the Big Guy.

Laura of Baldwin, mother of Isabella, 12, and Mark, 10, says it's important to her to let the women know they've not been forgotten, and they will not be judged.

“That's part of giving,” she says.

For Elaine, watching her family help the project grow is a source of great pride.

“I'm glad they're willing to do that,” she says. “My husband and I achieved something bringing them up to be so caring.”

Rachel Weaver is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7948 or

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