"It all started with an overcoat."
Nancy Heil lowers her voice and -- without taking a breath -- recounts the surreal experience she had when she tried to take a man's overcoat and give it to someone in need 15 years ago.
"I brought it with other goods to a shelter Downtown that only served women," she says. "I felt so strongly that the coat had to be given to a man directly."
The shelter employee told her to leave it on the steps of a building on Sixth Street and it would be gone in a flash.
When she persisted in saying that wasn't acceptable, she was told, "Well, then, you better ask God."
She went to the building, said a prayer and opened the door. "I saw a man at the top of the steps and said 'Do you need a coat? He came down and got it.' I went back into the car and felt immediately like something still wasn't finished."
That night of charity transformed the life of Nancy Heil, winner of a 2008 Jefferson Award for Public Service, which honors extraordinary volunteerism. The program is administered locally by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette with sponsorship of Highmark, The Pittsburgh Foundation and The Heinz Endowments.
At an awards ceremony on Feb. 12 at the Carnegie Museums of Arts and Natural History, WOMEN of Southwestern Pennsylvania will donate $1,000 to Mrs. Heil's cause.
Her ministry has no name, accepts only in-kind donations and yet has grown to serve the homeless, marginally housed and others in need. Mrs. Heil has rebuffed numerous efforts in the past from press organizations that wanted to shine a light on her.
"This is God's doing. When I see a need, He fills it, and I just make sure it gets where it has to go."
One night a week, Mrs. Heil, drives Downtown to find and minister to those in need. They are behind fences, between the Dumpsters, hiding in stairwells. They are hungry, cold, tired and often scared.
Mrs. Heil, known as "Miss Nancy" among volunteers and the homeless, greets them in her signature business suit, her tiny 5-foot-2-inch frame perched atop 4-inch spike heels.
After the street patrol, she meets volunteers at a designated spot to distribute lunches and groceries to the needy who also have met there, knowing assistance can be had. The distribution begins with a prayer. Miss Nancy then talks with every person in the line.
Cathy Hammel of Oakmont, a longtime volunteer who nominated Mrs. Heil for the award, said "The first time I went, it was freezing cold and wet. She kept me right beside her in the line. She talks directly to each one of them and asks, 'What do you need? Are you on the inside or the outside?'
"It's remarkable, everything that they take with them they have tried on, it fits. People actually get what they need. She knows what is in her car trunk and matches the need to the person. Everything she does, she is a vessel of God. I really believe that."
Sarah McLaughlin of Peters is a volunteer driver. "The most touching thing I ever heard is what Nancy said to a homeless person when they told her they didn't like to accept charity: 'It's not charity, we are just sharing with each other.' "
The work is endless, and Mrs. Heil says that's because the need is there.
Any military officer would be envious of the network that Mrs. Heil has built up in 15 years. Operated from her North Hills home and a nearby satellite location, more than 500 volunteers are rotated on a vast schedule performing tasks that include making lunches, packing grocery bags, making bed rolls and even finding furniture for families who have lost everything in fires or other circumstances. They pick up free baked goods after hours, donate food and drive vans.
Every shirt that is given away has been pressed to perfection. The ironing falls mostly to Miss Nancy. "It's about self-respect," she says.
She talks about men she's found shivering in the stairwells who were released from jail in prison clothes, their shirts emblazoned with the word "jail." "How is someone supposed to get back on the right track like that?" she says.
Besides the homeless, she prepares weekly care packages of food and toiletries for those living in transitional housing who receive other assistance. "Some of those people might get $300 a month to live on and $250 goes to housing. That leaves $50 for food and all of the other necessities. When I ask these people how they make it, the answer is always the same: 'I sell my blood plasma a few times a week.' "
Mrs. Heil's ministry is successful for its simplicity. Every volunteer gets a job that takes a nominal amount of time -- some come once a month or once a week -- and they do what they like and what they can. Amber Bierkan of Hampton brings unlabeled soup and condiments from the Heinz plant.
Dorothy Kirkpatrick of Aspinwall stands over the soup that Amber brought, putting labels on the cans and stocking the shelves. At 87, she says it is a privilege to be asked to go out as one of the 12-15 volunteers on distribution night. "The first time I went, I was shocked to see how many people needed help."
There are many success stories. Mrs. Heil recalls the gentleman who got that first coat. He now holds a full-time job as a dishwasher and helps other men who are making their way back.
"When I go to his restaurant, I see him there," she says. "You never ate off of such a clean dish. I am so proud of him."
Tomorrow: Epryl King, who is raising academic achievement in Monroeville and Pitcairn.
Rosa Colucci can be reached at 412-263-1661 or firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published February 6, 2009 5:00 AM