It's a cold, gray day. A stranger drives up one of those streets in Homestead lined with cupola churches and patched-up houses that rise from the Mon. He finds the aging apartment building that used to be a single-family home and creaks up the steps onto a barren, paint-chipped porch.
Two knocks and a curious toddler with a silver-sequined headband pulls aside a curtain just inside the storm door, barely tall enough to peek through the glass.
This would be Danica Martin, just turned 19 months. Dad walks up behind her. This would be Danny, a big guy. He sweeps one arm back toward the living room to welcome the stranger in. And this would be the Dorothy-in-Oz moment, as the stranger steps from the gray skies and lonely porch into a blaze of color and warmth.
Christmas lights glow from every direction. Toys, stuffed animals and books are neatly stacked and shelved in the corners. Generations of family members look out from portraits on the walls and mantel.
Mom, a.k.a. Becky Coviello, explains the empty porch, almost apologizing. "We're allowed to put lights up out there, but they keep stealing them. Drunks, people walking up the hill. For no reason."
As the stranger settles down on the couch, Danica toddles over and hands him a book, another book, a bear, a Barbie, one by one. And this is when the thank yous begin.
They pour out of Becky and Danny for the AIU Steel Valley Family Center, located just down the hill and around the corner on Eighth Avenue.
"They are amazing," Becky says. "They help us with everything, especially with Danica after Danny's dad died. ... The family center really stepped in. The first year they were incredibly helpful. With everything. With diapers -- they are so expensive. We're trying to get Danica to use the potty so we can get away from the diapers."
Trying to cut costs and get by is something Becky and Danny struggle with every day.
Becky grew up in 17 foster homes in the Greensburg area, started working as a waitress when she was 15 and has been happily employed at The Waterfront Eat'n Park for more than four years now, working three shifts a week at the moment. That's where she met Danny. He's a cook.
Danny's story started in Bloomfield, where he grew especially close to his father as a young boy. In his teens, he moved with his dad into his grandparents' place in Greenfield. Two years ago, his dad died early, at 51.
"[Becky and I] met and I moved in and it was easy for a while," Danny says. "Then my dad died, and he was everything to me. I had nothing to fall back on. But the family center was there. ... I would give the shirt off my back to the family center. ... I would let them put my picture in the newspaper for the family center. I would put on a Santa suit and stand outside with a bucket to collect money for the family center. I would do anything for those people. They make you feel like you're family."
What has the family center done to earn such praise? What hasn't it done?
Turkey at Thanksgiving and ham at Christmas. Toys for the kids, thanks to the Marine Corps' Toys for Tots program. Clothes from the Salvation Army. Furniture from St. Vincent de Paul. Rides to doctors' appointments. Tickets to amusement parks and children's shows, courtesy of Tickets for Kids. Glasses. Holiday parties. Parenting classes and parent-support groups. Oh, and those diapers.
One other example: Becky got terribly ill with gestational diabetes when she was pregnant with Danica; then Danica was born six weeks early. Danica started missing all the developmental markers. She had a flat head, her right fist stayed closed, she spit up all the time, she wasn't catching on.
The family center set them up with the Alliance for Infants and Toddlers. Danny and Becky got parenting tips; Danica got physical therapy. "We worked with her day and night," Danny says. "She achieved all her goals in nine months -- we had a graduation ceremony for her."
Now, Becky says, "Danica is so smart. She can sing her ABCs. She's so happy. She's brought a lot of joy to everybody."
That includes brother Dylan, 9, and sister Savannah, 8, children from Becky's previous marriage.
Dylan is exceptionally bright -- he drew a giant plant cell on a poster in his bedroom -- and excels at baseball, but he can be difficult sometimes. He's been diagnosed with disruptive behavior disorder. Having Danica around has helped him chill out, as has therapy and home behavior-charting worked out with the help of Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC. The family center set that up.
Savannah draws a lot, loves to sing and loves to help. She cooks, cleans and gives Danica her bath. Savannah is a bit too retiring, though, Becky says, so the family center put her in touch with the Strong Women, Strong Girls Pittsburgh program.
For all that the family center has done for them, Becky and Danny return the favor when they can. They donate clothes and toys they no longer need. When the center needs something heavy moved, they call Danny. Remember, he's big. Becky took part in protests this year when it looked like state budget cuts might shut the center down.
Everyone at the family center returns the affection. Director Mary G. Paull calls Becky and Danny "a very hardworking couple. ... They both work at Eat'n Park and work out their shifts so they can take care of the kids. ... They are so grounded in raising their children."
As for all the things the center does, Ms. Paull says it all advances the primary mission, which is to help parents give children through age five the best possible start in life. Mostly this means making connections -- to government agencies, nonprofit organizations, companies, hospitals, individuals, you name it -- so that families get the help they need.
The lead agency for the Steel Valley center is the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, which oversees 10 family centers in Allegheny County. It helps that four of the six people who work there grew up in the Homestead area. "That gives us a strong connection to the community, to companies, to schools, agencies," Ms. Paull says. "We know people -- it's like, 'Hey, do you know somebody who can get us this or get us that.' "
One thing they can rely on every year around this time is the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Goodfellows Fund, which supports Toys for Tots -- because no child should wake up on Christmas morning without a gift under the tree. Please make a tax-deductible contribution to the Goodfellows Fund by using the coupon with this story or online at www.post-gazette.com/goodfellows.
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Greg Victor: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1570. First Published December 21, 2012 5:00 AM