VA Heinz Campus transformed to Santa's workshop for a day

Tawnya Panizzi
| Wednesday, Dec. 25, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Paul Desabetino walked into work as a greeter at the Veterans Administration hospital on Dec. 17 and walked out feeling like Santa.

Tucked under his arm as he left the VA Hospital's Heinz Campus in O'Hara were a pink dart gun, a fuzzy teddy bear and a wool coat.

“I have three grandkids that live with me,” said Desabetino, an Army veteran and Sharpsburg resident. “I'm so grateful for these things. I'm on a fixed income. I wouldn't have been able to do all this.”

The gifts were part of Toys for Troops, an event that transformed the facility's Ambulatory Care Center into a makeshift department store where 5,000 gifts were waiting to be stashed under someone's tree. The event was sponsored by Texas-based Operation Once in a Lifetime, a group whose aim is to provide financial and moral support to servicemen.

“Everything is tight this time of year,” said Daniel Harper, an Army veteran who now works at the hospital. He wasn't aware of the program until he arrived at work to find a U-Haul full of bikes, board games and Barbie dolls being unloaded into the Adult Day Care Center.

“The gas and electric bills are up and I have an 8-year-old that's such a sweetheart. I feel bad saying no to that extra ‘Monster High' toy that she wants,” Harper said. “Thankfully, I won't have to.”

Harper was one of 250 veterans to visit the store, decorated with brightly-colored Christmas trees and swags of garland. He left with a chrome and pink scooter for his daughter — and a deluxe Monster High T-shirt design kit.

“She's gonna go nuts when she opens these,” he said.

Retired PA guardsman Eric Jackson said he's the one who felt like a kid on Christmas morning after getting gifts for his three children, ages 7, 9 and 11.

“They like super heroes and Star Wars and that stuff all costs big money,” he said. “This helps so much.”

Voluntary Services Coordinator Maria Gibb served as an elf at the event, walking with the veterans as they chose gifts for their families. With tears welling in her eyes, Gibb said the event was a reminder to be grateful for all she has.

“They were so happy. Whatever they wanted,” she said, “they would grab it and we bagged it up for them.”

Tawnya Panizzi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-782-2121, ext. 2 or

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