Plum residents step up, not back, in tough times

| Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013, 9:03 p.m.

Garett and Holly Wagner knew their son had a heart defect before he was born.

Benjamin Wagner has been at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh since his birth Dec. 27.

Garett Wagner, 35, a volunteer with both Plum's Holiday Park and Monroeville No. 6 volunteer fire departments, was forced to drop his two part-time jobs after Benjamin was born, to help care for his other three sons, Jackson, 4; Ethan, 3; and Camden, 1.

Holly Wagner, 32, stopped her work as a consultant for Tastefully Simple, a direct-sales company.

Though the Plum family had to alter their livelihoods to care for the son, the bills haven't stopped.

“The mortgage has to be paid,” Holly Wagner said last week in a phone interview from Children's Hospital. Doctors on Monday performed open-heart surgery on Benjamin.

The couple's load was lightened a little recently, when members of the Holiday Park Volunteer Fire Department helped the family organize a spaghetti dinner fundraiser. Holly said about 500 people attended the dinner and more than $8,000 was raised for the family.

That's just one example of the Plum community stepping up to help those in need whether it be an illness, death, financial hardship, house fire or other life-altering event.

“While other communities have (community members giving their time and resources to help others), we have something unique in Plum,” said Plum Mayor Richard Hrivnak. “There's a sense of family. The community always has been great to rally around folks.”

Hrivnak speaks from tragic experience. The mayor's first wife, Pam, and his daughter, Sarah, died in a car crash in 1995.

“The community was great to me,” Hrivnak said.

On the same night of the Wagners' fundraiser, the Plum Borough Education Association, which represents the district's teachers, hosted a spaghetti dinner at the Plum Borough Senior Community Center for borough resident Lorri Nixon, 48, who is battling leukemia.

PBEA Treasurer J.R. Pilyih said more than 650 people attended and more than $8,000 was raised for Nixon.

From conducting the annual Festival in the Park in the fall that raises money for families in need to sponsoring booths at the Plum Borough Community Festival in the summer to helping host Sugar Plum Days at the senior community center at Christmas to giving $1,000 scholarships to five Plum High School seniors, PBEA members mobilize to help.

“What we do outside the classroom is just as important as inside the classroom,” said Pilyih, 34. “We care about the community.”

Pilyih believes groups rally around those in need because Plum is a tight-knit community.

“There's always a family in need, and we are happy to help,” Pilyih said.

Nixon, who was diagnosed with leukemia nearly three years ago, said she appreciates the community support.

“There are huge expenses associated with cancer,” Nixon said. “I am sincerely thankful for the support.”

Mark Carney continues to be humbled by the outpouring of support he receives from the Plum community after the death of his wife, Sunny, Nov. 3.

Sunny Carney, 42, was diagnosed in 2008 with carcinoid cancer.

Many groups sponsored fundraisers for Carney over the years. The fifth annual Miles of Smiles 5K walk/run event was held at the Boyce Park ski lodge the day after Carney died. Event organizer Chris Cooley, who was honored by Plum Council earlier this week for his efforts, said the event raised $7,500 for the Carney and Nixon families of Plum, and the Croyle family of Murrysville. Croyle died last August from pancreatic cancer.

The fundraiser, which began as Miles of Smiles for Sunny, was founded to help Carney pay for cancer treatments.

Carney and his sons attended and helped during the recent fundraiser for Nixon.

“People here take care of their own,” said Carney, 42, a Squirrel Hill native who has lived in Plum about 12 years.

Carney said neighbors and friends continue to look after him and his three sons.

“We still receive dinners on Monday and Thursday nights,” Carney said.

The practice began when Sunny Carney became ill.

“I am not surprised but humbled by the community response,” Carney said. “People don't just mail a check.”

Holly Wagner said she was blown away by the fire department and community support for her family.

“They went above and beyond,” she said.

Karen Zapf is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8753, or

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