By Brad Pedersen| Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2012, 8:58 p.m.
A group of people gathered around Cindy and Allan Harff's Bernice Drive home and Christmas light display last week for a candlelight vigil to benefit the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
Members of Jamie's Dream Team, a White Oak-based non-profit organization aiming to help people who are sick or disabled or individuals going through a traumatic experience, hoped the vigil would raise money for the families of the 20 children slain at the school in Newtown, Conn., according to founder Jamie Holmes.
The school shooting claimed the lives of 20 elementary school students and six school staff members. The gunman committed suicide at the school.
“The minute I heard about those families, I immediately wanted to help,” Holmes said. “I wanted to pull the community together to support those families and thought the vigil would be the perfect way.”
This holiday season, Gateway Newspapers is highlighting local nonprofit organizations to tell readers what the needs are in their communities and the challenges groups face in meeting those needs throughout the suburbs.
Holmes started Jamie's Dream Team when she was 17 years old. She hopes her age serves as inspiration for people everywhere to help those in need, Holmes said.
Like the Make-a-Wish Foundation, Jamie's Dream Team provides individuals with items, trips or other services to help take their mind off of their disease, disability or affliction. Since the organization started, it has granted more than a dozen wishes, ranging from sending a family on a trip to Walt Disney World in Florida and visits with celebrities, such as Avril Lavigne and rock band Kiss, to a video-game-inspired bedroom makeover.
“My organization is here to give people a better feeling about their life, whether they're 12 or 100 – age doesn't matter,” Holmes said. “If you get involved and help and see where your efforts are affecting someone, that means more than anything.
“Nothing feels better than that.”
When Holmes heard about the Dec. 14 shooting, she originally planned to travel to Newtown to hold fundraisers or provide services for the victims' families, but decided it would be better to act locally.
The vigil was held on Bernice Drive, in conjunction with the Harff Christmas Light Extravaganza. For the last two years, the Harff family has collected donations at the light display to benefit Jamie's Dream Team, Cindy Harff said.
Cindy Harff helped Holmes plan the vigil, and said it is their way of showing the Newtown community the Greater Pittsburgh region cares.
“We want to be able to do something nice for them,” she said.
“Jamie just warms my heart because not only is she helping people locally, she's going out to other places.”
Holmes plans to personally deliver the money to the victims' families, she said.
“I think we need to stay back for a bit, and when everything begins to calm down for them, I'd like to go up to do something,” Holmes said. “Also, with my health issues, it would have been difficult to go.”
Holmes, 25, has been dealing with VATER Syndrome, in which birth defects cause physical abnormalities, she said.
Holmes has had multiple surgeries, but the disorder still leaves her in constant pain, she said.
Holmes said she chooses to focus on helping others instead of feeling sorry for herself.
“It really makes me feel better to help others, since it takes my mind off the pain,” she said. “I've made helping others my goal and passion in life.”
Brad Pedersen is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8626, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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