Prepaid gas cards a lift for families

| Sunday, June 9, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

For struggling families with sick kids, hospital bills can be just the start of financial headaches.

Hospital parking fees, time off from work and gasoline for trips to and from medical appointments compound the stress on working families, especially in a shaky economy with steep gas prices, social workers say.

“People just don't have money,” said Janet Fogle, supervisor of the social work department at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh in Lawrenceville.

She estimated her department fields 25 percent to 50 percent more calls from families needing transportation than it did during the past several years, though she did not have exact numbers.

Some get a hand from radio hosts Tony and Laureen Giorgio, Christian broadcasters based in Maggie Valley, N.C., who started appearing a few months ago in Western Pennsylvania on Pittsburgh AM station WWNL.

Their syndicated “Living with Victory” broadcast, at 9:30 a.m. Sundays, reaches several U.S. cities and asks listeners to contribute to prepaid gas cards for needy families at Children's in Pittsburgh and youth hospitals in Asheville, N.C., and Orlando, Fla.

The effort opened modestly in its first three months, with just about $1,000 in $25 gas cards distributed to start, Tony Giorgio said. At least 10 went to Pittsburgh.

Giorgio said the nonprofit effort has larger aspirations, hoping word of mouth will fuel a charitable boom.

“We're probably the best-kept secret in town,” said Giorgio, 69. “We don't have the budget for marketing and advertising. Even though I'm on the air, if you don't tell someone you're there, they're not going to know.”

Longtime motivational speakers and broadcasters, the Giorgios have been married 46 years. When Laureen Giorgio underwent recent treatment for breast cancer, they found gas prices a burden.

Social workers told the Giorgios they weren't alone in negotiating that financial stress, leading the couple to begin the gas-card charity in areas where they broadcast, Tony Giorgio said. Donations are funneled through their Compassion Children's Foundation, registered as a nonprofit organization.

Families receiving the help “are overwhelmed and just very appreciative of anything,” said Mary Norris, a family-counseling manager at Arnold Palmer Medical Center in Orlando. “We have other foundations that pay for mortgages, car payments, things like that. But gas is a very basic need, so this is good.”

The regional demand for transportation help in Western Pennsylvania mirrors a statewide trend. The Pennsylvania Medical Transportation Assistance Program, which helps Medicaid users get to their medical appointments, has watched usage climb 7.3 percent during the past five years, spokeswoman Anne Bale said.

She said Medicaid participation overall grew about 23 percent in the same period.

Fogle said a number of established assistance services help patients get to and from appointments.

Yet the availability of those services varies substantially among counties and can be relatively slim in rural areas, from which the commute to Pittsburgh can turn pricey when gas tops $3 a gallon, she said.

“The way I look at it, if we can help at least one person, it's better than helping none,” Fogle said. “We're grateful.”

Adam Smeltz is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5676 or

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