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Thousands donate time, money to aid Western Pennsylvania nonprofits

| Sunday, Dec. 25, 2011

While getting treatments for breast cancer in 2006, Jodie Regola started sewing satchels for other women diagnosed with the disease.

"I don't get them done overnight," said Regola, who made about 65 bags that she filled with a soft turban, scarf, hand and body creams, lip balm, a journal, inspirational literature and a CD of relaxing music.

She wants her satchels to be "like a gift from heaven ... a reminder that someone you don't know cares."

"When you're first diagnosed, you don't know where you're coming from," said Regola, 57, of Greensburg.

She and other Western Pennsylvanians are a generous bunch, pushing Pittsburgh to the top spot on Charity Navigator's 2010 list of most charitable cities. Overall, the region's largest charities have strong philanthropic support.

And many smaller nonprofits that don't often generate headlines are making a difference here.

Satchels of Caring started in 2003 when several women decided they wanted to help make the early stages of breast cancer treatment easier and seized upon the idea of providing comfort in a hand-sewn bag.

"We sewed and sewed and sewed" to complete the 200 bags that were distributed that first year, said Heather Knuth, 52, of Mt. Lebanon, president of the Satchels of Caring Foundation.

Since then, the foundation has distributed nearly 6,300 bags in 15 counties. Volunteers use donated fabric and work on a yearly budget of $30,000.

Going global

The nonprofit Amizade has sent nearly 5,000 volunteers to other countries since 1994, contributing more than 100,000 service hours to projects in Tanzania, Brazil, Ghana, Jamaica, Bolivia, Mexico and Germany.

They've worked on clean water projects, served in health centers, run a summer camp for youths, tutored children and helped maintain and restore artifacts at the German concentration camp Auschwitz.

The organization, headquartered in Pittsburgh, has a staff of four and a budget of slightly less than $1 million.

"We're the best-kept nonprofit secret in town," said Brandon Blache-Cohen, executive director.

Many volunteers say they got more than they gave and are using their Amizade experience in their lives and jobs. Though they range in age from 12 to 94, most are college students.

"It really did change my life," said University of Pittsburgh graduate Anthony Scaletta, who worked on a clean water project in Tanzania in 2009 and visited Northern Ireland last year. "I want to do good work. I want to be of service."

Barbara Evans, associate dean of academic affairs at Community College of Allegheny County, returned at the end of November from Jamaica, where she led a team of eight students who cleaned parks, planted trees and taught people to use computers.

"It was a rich experience, in terms of what's important," she said. "It brought to life the classroom lesson."

Open doors

Roscoe, a black Labrador retriever, came to the Animal Rescue League of Western Pennsylvania with a host of issues.

"He was very undersocialized, and we really questioned whether it was safe to put this dog back in the community," said Dan Rossi, executive director.

But after the staff started working with the dog, "it was like a switch went off in his head, and he decided people are OK. He did a 180," said Rossi, who oversees a $3.5 million budget that comes primarily from small donations of $25 to $35.

Roscoe became one of more than 5,500 dogs, cats and other animals people adopted this year from the open-door shelter in Larimer. Its wildlife rehabilitation center in Rosedale took in 2,200 animals, including three foxes bred in Ohio, and returned 64 percent of them to the wild.

The Animal Rescue League's low-cost clinic for low-income pet owners treated more than 12,300 cats, dogs and rabbits.

Founded in 1909, the organization's 70 staffers and 350 volunteers care for and try to find homes for all healthy and friendly animals that come to the shelter. They often place animals that arrive with special challenges -- behavioral or medical -- with foster families for care and treatment until they find suitable adoptive families.

Cyndie Stratiff, 57, of Wilkins has fostered about 400 cats during the past four years for the Animal Rescue League. She's keeping 14 now.

"I was looking for something that mattered, something that I could put some passion into," she said. "There's an awful lot of abandoned, scared animals out there."

Reshaping neighborhoods

Steve Hellner-Burris makes a simple pitch to companies, groups or congregations looking to make a difference.

"We're a cheap date. For $4,000 you can come spend a day with us and make a difference in someone's life," said Hellner-Burris, executive director of Rebuilding Together Pittsburgh.

A $4,000 donation "sponsors" a low-income senior's home repair needs. Employees of the sponsor then donate time, and Rebuilding Together uses the money to buy materials for the job.

This year, about 1,500 Rebuilding Together volunteers completed 60 full-scale home repairs, 125 urgent repair projects and provided $750,000 worth of free services.

About half of the organization's $1 million annual budget includes donated materials or labor.

Joe and Helen Bakalarski of Crafton Heights consider the chairlift that Rebuilding Together volunteers installed in their home "such a blessing."

"We don't get around like we used to," said Helen, 89. Her husband is 91.

Workers replaced the ceiling in their bedroom and painted their dining room and living room.

This year, The Pittsburgh Project sent more than 2,700 young people to do free home repairs for more than 230 elderly homeowners in 60 city neighborhoods. Crews painted, poured concrete, built wheelchair ramps, hung drywall, installed doors and windows, patched roofs and hung gutter -- in all, more than 50,000 hours of work.

"It's great to be part of a neighborhood and get to know the families and be part of their lives," said Elizabeth Rosemeyer, executive director of the Pittsburgh Project, which has a budget of about $3 million and offers afterschool and summer programs for about 450 young people.

The experience often surprises kids who participate.

"They get more than they expected," Rosemeyer said.

Samantha "Sam" Buffoni, 18, of Robinson bonded with the families she helped as a Pittsburgh Project volunteer.

"I've gone back to visit them," said Buffoni, whose volunteer experience might shape her career choice: social work, or something in the medical field.

"I want to help people," she said.

Good beginnings

In 1990, then-Pittsburgh Bishop Donald Wuerl began looking for a way to keep open three Catholic schools in urban communities.

With the help of corporate executives, the Catholic Diocese formed a partnership of volunteers that became the Extra Mile Education Foundation.

In the 21 years since then, Extra Mile Foundation scholarships have helped more than 3,000 students in poor neighborhoods receive a Catholic education, according to Ambrose P. Murray, the foundation's executive director.

"We like what we do," Murray said. "We think this matters for children that might not get the start they need."

Extra Mile supports about 700 pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade students in two schools -- St. Benedict the Moor in the Hill District and Sister Thea Bowman Catholic Academy in Wilkinsburg.

"Children just need a boost; they do the rest," Murray said.

Additional Information:

Valuable service

There were 1.6 million registered charities in the United States in 2010, according to the National Center for Charitable Statistics.

Pennsylvania is home to more than 13,000 operating charities.

'Only a few of them are large,' said Jennifer Ahern Lammers, a nonprofit consultant in Boston who founded the website .

For those small charities, volunteers make all the difference.

'Being able to tap into a large volunteer pool allows nonprofits to stretch their dollars,' she said.

On average, Pennsylvania's 2.7 million volunteers contribute $7.5 billion worth of service each year, according to Volunteering in America.

Nationwide, more than 62 million adults volunteered nearly 8.1 billion hours to organizations in 2010 -- service valued at almost $173 billion.

Source: Tribune-Review research

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