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Groups focus on creating special spaces, helping seniors

| Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2012, 8:58 p.m.
Ryan Johnson holds his daughter Payton, 3, in her recently renovated bedroom on Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2012, in their Hempfield home. Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
(c) 2012 Lillian DeDomenic
Jackie Lentz (left) and Jennifer Petrisek, volunteers with the Forbes Trail Faith in Action Steering Committee, stuff totes and stockings for delivery on Wednesday, December 12. Lillian DeDomenic | For The Murrysville Star
Riley Johnson, 3, dances in her bedroom, which recently received a makeover courtesy of Special Spaces of Southwestern Pennsylvania and Northern West Virginia, on Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2012, in Hempfield. Johnson and her three siblings have all been diagnosed with Ataxia-telangiectasia, rare inherited disorder that affects the nervous system, immune system and other body systems. Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review

One group designs bedroom makeovers for children with life-threatening illnesses and the other aims to complete small tasks for free so older residents can stay in their own homes.

Over the past year, Special Spaces of Southwestern Pennsylvania and Northern West Virginia and Forbes Trail Faith in Action have expanded their influence in the Penn-Trafford area and surrounding communities.

Both are seeking new volunteers so they can continue to serve their clients and raise money to support new projects.

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.

The local Special Spaces chapter, founded by 2006 Penn-Trafford graduate Brian VanKirk, has made a splash since it began about a year ago. It finished its first two projects over the last two months.

About 30 volunteers showed up at the Hempfield Township home of Ryan and Addison Johnson on Dec. 15 to help decorate three rooms for their four children. All of the children — 5-year-old Ayden and the 3-year-old triplets Alivia, Payton and Riley — have ataxia-telangiectasia, which causes progressive loss of muscle control and immune-system problems.

VanKirk, 24, of Harrison City, said it took about eight hours to turn Ayden's room into a hockey haven that features Penguins paraphernalia and transform the girls' rooms into princess-themed palaces.

“It just meant so much,” he said. “Not only do you feel like you're helping, but you also feel good at the end.”

Each room makeover costs $2,500 to $3,000. The siblings of the ill children the group helps also get some alterations — which can run about $500 — so they don't feel left out, VanKirk said.

The nonprofit group, which has a Murrysville post-office address, has only one other board member, VanKirk's high school classmate Caitlin Corcoran. VanKirk is hoping to add another 10 board members to help with fund drives and arrange for the completion of more projects.

Special Spaces has cast a wide net in the region. Its first project was in Cambria County; two more families in Hempfield and one in Washington County are on a waiting list.

“We want to do a big fundraiser in May that would help fund four to five rooms,” VanKirk said.

Meanwhile, the local Faith in Action chapter, which is affiliated with the United Way of Westmoreland County, boosted its client base by 25 percent to 200 people this year by expanding into the Penn-Trafford area. When it started four years ago, the focus was on residents 60 and older in Murrysville, Export and Delmont.

The group — which operates on an annual budget of less than $50,000 — provides free services, including transportation, small household repairs, home-safety checks and caregiver relief.

Diana Sorg, who lives in Trafford Manor, is one of the chapter's 40 new clients in the Penn-Trafford area. She said she has been grateful for the help of volunteers who take her to medical appointments or run errands for her because she suffers from fibromyalgia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and other ailments.

“I said, ‘You mean I don't have to give anything? I don't feel right about that,'” said Sorg, 63. “And they said ‘Nope. It's all volunteer.' That's hard to come by in this world.”

Though the group has a core volunteer base of 65, its leadership wants to build its steering committee, especially in the Penn-Trafford communities.

Faith in Action wants to establish more relationships with churches and other organizations in Penn-Trafford, said Jackie Lentz, a retired nurse from Murrysville who is on the steering committee.

“It's not a permanent commitment. It's a commitment as you have time,” she said. “You really can contribute as much or as little as you want to.”

Chris Foreman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8671, or cfore

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