If there were a Super Bowl of volunteerism, Pittsburghers would make as mighty a team as their beloved Steelers.
Year after year, the region produces a bumper crop of citizens who give of themselves to their fellow human beings with no reward beyond the satisfaction of filling a crying need in their communities. And year after year, a handful of these impressive volunteers are chosen to receive the prestigious Jefferson Award for Public Service.
Their stories are an inspiration in a time when greed and selfishness seem to have brought the country to a low point.
The 2008 winners donated countless hours organizing volunteers to clothe and feed homeless people, assembled care packages for other nonprofit agencies, taught low-income students the basics of banking and investments and registered thousands of donors for the bone marrow transplant list.
They also narrowed the achievement gap for low-income students, helped families traverse the mental health system, and organized sports leagues comprising disabled and nondisabled students.
The Jefferson Awards were started in 1972 by the American Institute for Public Service and are administered locally by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette with sponsorship of Highmark, The Pittsburgh Foundation and The Heinz Endowments.
The recipients are among 50 Community Champions who were nominated by the public and private sectors.
The Jefferson winners will be honored Feb. 12 at an awards ceremony at the Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History. A private reception will be held at 5:30 p.m. followed by a ceremony free and open to the public at 7 p.m. hosted by public television producer Rick Sebak. Winners will receive a medallion and $1,000 for the nonprofit of their choice, underwritten by sponsoring groups.
Last summer, three Shaler Area High School seniors recognized for a 2007 Jefferson Award -- Erin Drischle, Jackie Betz and Megan Neuf -- went on to win the annual Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Award for public service in Washington, D.C., one of the nation's highest honors for humanitarian work. They had created M-Powerment, a program to educate teen girls about the dangers of sexual violence.
For the 2008 winners, the Post-Gazette is publishing individual profiles starting today with the young adults of Lauren's Work. Subsequent profiles will appear in the Magazine section. Here are brief descriptions of the other awardees and what they have done for the community:
Kate Rosenthal learned in 2002 that her good friend's daughter, Amy Katz, needed a bone marrow transplant. She helped organize Amy's Army, which has registered more than 8,000 people in the National Bone Marrow Registry and matched 23 donors with recipients -- although not yet Ms. Katz.
William J. Green & Associates will provide the donation on Ms. Rosenthal's behalf to Amy's Army.
Cheryl Kubitz is the top volunteer for Operation HOPE, which seeks to eradicate poverty through economic empowerment. She teaches low-income students the basics of financial literacy and also gives many hours to such McKeesport agencies as the local food banks, YMCA and La Rosa Boys and Girls Club.
PNC Foundation will provide the donation to Operation HOPE.
George O'Donnell founded Friends-to-Friends to bring together children with disabilities with their nondisabled peers for fun activities. A disabled veteran whose son has cerebral palsy, he now oversees an organization involving 185 children in a full bowling schedule, fishing days and a summer basketball league.
FISA Foundation will provide the donation to Friends-to-Friends.
Epryl King founded Raising Achievement in Monroeville and Pitcairn to help close the achievement gap for disadvantaged students. A second-grade teacher in Gateway School District, she spends 30 hours a month coordinating volunteer tutors and creating incentives for kids to improve their grades.
The Grable Foundation will provide the donation to Raising Achievement.
Nancy Heil organizes volunteers to help feed and clothe homeless people Downtown, working out of her own home with no office or fundraising. She considers her calling a ministry, and so do the recipients who've come to depend on blankets and other necessities she and hundreds of her troops provide.
WOMEN of Southwestern Pennsylvania will provide the donation to her organization.
Richard Jevon learned from seeking care for his son that the mental health system can be bewildering and frustrating. Now he comforts and educates families navigating the same rocky terrain, volunteering 125 hours a month for the National Alliance of Mental Illness of Southwestern Pennsylvania.
The Jewish Healthcare Foundation will provide the donation to the National Alliance.
Sally Kalson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1610.