Jefferson Awards: Six Pittsburgh finalists for Most Outstanding Volunteer chosen

All have won 2012 Jefferson Awards

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Millvale may be opening its first community library in June, thanks to the efforts of a 36-year-old sixth-grade teacher who watched residents come together to rebuild after two devastating floods and worked to marshal that collaborative spirit to create a "center of knowledge" for the borough.

Homeless women seeking support from Bethlehem Haven are getting back on their feet, thanks in part to a 58-year-old Elliott woman who was homeless herself for 11 years, jailed six times and addicted to drugs.

And children and adults who are ailing, disabled or injured have been given trips to Disney World, NASCAR races and other extraordinary experiences, thanks to a 25-year-old White Oak woman with a rare medical condition who organized a Dream Team of volunteers that help others facing difficulties similar to hers.

These are among six individuals who have been named finalists for Most Outstanding Volunteer among 47 Jefferson Award for Public Service winners for 2012. The Jefferson Awards, which started nationally more than 30 years ago, are considered the Nobel Prize of volunteering.

Also selected for the second-annual Team Award is Keep it Real, a student-run organization at the University of Pittsburgh that provides tutoring for Somali-Bantu refugees in the area. The local Jefferson selection committee created the designation last year to encourage groups to volunteer.

The Jefferson Awards ceremony will be held from 7 to 8:30 p.m. April 29 at Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland, where the Most Outstanding Volunteer will be announced. The event is free and open to the public.

That winner will represent Western Pennsylvania at the national Jefferson Awards ceremony in Washington, D.C., this summer.

The Jefferson program is administered locally by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette with sponsorship by Highmark, BNY Mellon, The Pittsburgh Foundation and The Heinz Endowments.

Local businesses and corporations will provide $1,000 to each finalist to go toward his or her given charity. A list of those donors will be published at a later date.

Profiles of the finalists for Most Outstanding Volunteer and the Team Award will appear in the Post-Gazette Magazine section over the next eight days:

Denise Zellous

Ms. Zellous, of Elliott, started Project HOPE, which collects everyday household items for women who are entering the workforce. It's part of her volunteer work with Dress for Success Pittsburgh, a professional women's group. After a hard life growing up in McKees Rocks Terrace with a single mother and years of addiction and homelessness, she reached a turning point on April 29, 2000. She hasn't relapsed since and has focused her attention on rebuilding her life and on helping others.

Her profile will appear Monday.

Bobby Catley

He's just 19, but Mr. Catley, of Hopewell, has already participated in 45 service learning projects. Among these are the Caring Cafe at his alma mater, Hopewell High School. He started the cafe to raise money for Highmark Caring Place, an organization that supports grieving families. He also organized a healthy foods and wellness expo at his high school that was so successful he hopes to host the exposition this fall at Robert Morris University, where he is pursuing a business degree.

His profile will appear Tuesday.

Jamie Holmes

Ms. Holmes was born with a rare disorder called VATER syndrome and has undergone more than 30 surgeries to reconstruct her esophagus, trachea, lower intestine and to fuse several vertebrae in her spine. Often in pain herself, she can relate to the suffering of others. To that end she created Jamie's Dream Team in 2005, whose volunteers lift the spirits of others who are disabled, terminally ill or have experienced trauma or chronic conditions by providing them with fabulous trips or opportunities.

Her profile will appear Wednesday.

Robert "Butch" Burke

The local Vietnam Veterans Inc. has shrunk from 1,000 members in the 1970s to about 300 now, but that hasn't dimmed Mr. Burke's passion for the organization and its mission to help other vets. The 68-year-old retired engineer from Brentwood sets up the annual POW/MIA vigil, organizes the honor guard that marches in parades and serves in funerals, helps to raise money for a river cruise for vets with disabilities, collects food and clothing for homeless vets and works with other endeavors.

His profile will appear Friday.

Roxanne Plater

Most mothers who get involved in their daughters' Girl Scout activities just focus on their own troop. Not only did Ms. Plater, 47, of Penn Hills eventually become a leader of that troop, but she reached beyond the eastern suburbs to start a troop in Manchester, which didn't have one, and has taken on more and more leadership roles within the organization. Despite having a full-time job and busy household, she may put in as many as 20 hours a week helping the Girl Scouts and other charities.

Her profile will appear on Saturday.

Brian Wolovich

Mr. Wolovich's day job is teaching sixth grade, but he's tapped a wealth of other skills and community support to open Millvale's first library. After five years of hard work, planning and $500,000 in fundraising, the library is on the verge of opening on Grant Avenue in the heart of town. He spends 20 hours a week -- 60 hours a week in the summer -- on this project he hopes will evolve into a community hub for meetings, tutoring, classes and organizing.

His profile will appear April 21.

Pitt Keep It Real team

For six years, University of Pittsburgh students participating in Keep It Real have fanned out among pockets of Somali-Bantu refugee communities in the region to tutor children and their families on school work as well as cultural adjustment. Volunteers also organize Halloween parties and spring picnics for the families. So far, Keep It Real has helped more than 70 students graduate from high school.

The team profile will appear on April 22.

For more information about the Jefferson Awards for Public Service program -- or if you want to nominate an unsung hero for the 2013 awards -- go to

Correction, posted April 14, 2013: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized one of the volunteer activities that led to the selection of Robert "Butch" Burke as a finalist. Mr. Burke helps raise money at an annual golf outing for Sharing and Caring, an organization that hosts a river cruise for disabled vets.

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Virginia Linn: or 412-263-1662. First Published April 14, 2013 4:00 AM


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