Students turn T-shirts into quilts to warm homeless

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Griffin Kerstetter was in the car with her mother listening to the State of Union address when she started asking questions about unemployment. Annie Yonas was reading a book about people walking in the street when she started wondering about homelessness.

Efforts by the parents of both girls to help them understand the problems of those living in poverty have led to the Home Lost Project, which turns discarded T-shirts into blankets for the homeless.

For their work on the project, fourth-graders Griffin and Annie are among the regional finalists for Most Outstanding Volunteer with the local Jefferson Awards for Public Service program, which has awarded excellence in volunteerism nationally since 1972.

The girls -- longtime friends -- independently started asking questions about homelessness two years ago, when they were in second grade at O'Hara Elementary School.

Their parents arranged for them to meet with Adrienne Walnoha, the executive director of Community Human Services, which provides various services to the homeless. As the girls brainstormed ways to help, an idea was born.

"I wanted to do teddy bears, but Adrienne said that they were easier to lose and didn't keep you warm," said Annie, 9, of O'Hara. "Quilts were easier to keep and kept you warm."

And so the quilt project began, using a surplus of T-shirts that either they had outgrown or their parents had accumulated. To expand the project, they started asking for T-shirt donations. And every year since the project began they've spoken to other classes at O'Hara, telling students about homelessness and asking for T-shirts.

With the sewing help of Griffin's grandmother, Jane Burke, they made the T-shirts into warm quilts. The girls help with cutting and sometimes ironing the squares, and then hand the quilts off to grown-ups -- either Ms. Burke or volunteers at sew-ins -- to complete the quilts. Griffin is now learning to sew but has yet to tackle a quilt.

It was at one of those sew-ins that Bob Nelkin, president of the United Way of Allegheny County, ran across Annie and Griffin.

"The girls' empathy for people who they don't know who were struggling to have a roof over their head was really commendable," Mr. Nelkin said. "I think their empathy has spread to many others who have been part of putting together these quilts from old T-shirts."

Mr. Nelkin decided to nominate the girls for a Jefferson Award, noting that the benefits of the project go beyond the stated purpose of providing quilts to the homeless.

The Home Lost Project also raises awareness of homeless issues, and provides an all-too-rare venue for family volunteerism, he said.

"These are families coming together," he said. "In those family volunteerism events, the adults can learn from the children as well as the children learning from the adults."

Locally, the Jefferson Awards program is administered by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette with sponsorship by Highmark and BNY Mellon.

The six finalists for Outstanding Volunteer were selected from about 50 local winners. The winner will be announced at an award ceremony Tuesday at Heinz Field and will represent Western Pennsylvania this summer at the national Jefferson Awards ceremony.

Nonprofit Talent will donate $1,000 to Community Human Services on behalf of the girls.

The name Home Lost Project came from Griffin during her initial tour of a shelter with Ms. Walnoha. Taking notes, she realized she didn't know how to spell "homeless" and instead drew a house and wrote the word "lost" next to it. The name Home Lost stuck.

Annie and Griffin have a goal of making 50 quilts and have donated 28 to date.

Usually, they give the quilts to Ms. Walnoha, who distributes them. But on one occasion, the girls personally presented a quilt. "We did give them to one person," said Griffin, 10, of Fox Chapel. "She loved it, and so did her daughter."

Through their work in the project, they have been particularly struck by the statistic that in Allegheny County, many of the people living in homeless shelters are children under 8 and their mothers.

"Griffin and I are close to their ages and we think about how our lives are so much different," said Annie.

"It makes me sad to think about it," added Griffin. "But I'm happy because I'm making a difference."

Anya Sostek: or 412-263-1308.

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