Jefferson Awards: Volunteer reaches out in fighting poverty

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Nearly 20 years ago, Cheryl Kubitz, a single working mother of two young children, was so stretched financially that she didn't have money to buy a turkey for Thanksgiving Day.

She turned to her local food bank in Brookline for help. For a year she returned to the food bank monthly to provide her children, ages 4 and 10, with food and toys.

"I had to move on after that year," she recalls. "It was time for someone else to be blessed. Someone else needed it more than I did."

Still living in Brookline, she never forgot how kindly she was received by the charity's volunteers.

Last June, Ms. Kubitz, now 52 and the manager of the McKeesport Huntington Bank, hosted a food drive out of her office for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. The drivedonated more than an estimated 750 pounds of food.

Ms. Kubitz saw this not only as a success, but also as a way of giving back.

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Her volunteering extends beyond food drives, with time also spent volunteering at Highmark Caring Place, Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, McKeesport Hospital Foundation and the Lions Club. Last year she also went on a medical missions trip to Guatemala.

However it's for her work as the region's top volunteer for Operation HOPE, a global nonprofit organization that aims to eradicate poverty by teaching financial responsibility, that she has won a 2008 Jefferson Award for Public Service. The program, which recognizes outstanding volunteers, is facilitated locally by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Highmark, The Pittsburgh Foundation and The Heinz Endowments.

At an award ceremony on Feb. 12 the PNC Foundation will donate $1,000 to Operation HOPE on her behalf.

With more than 30 years in the banking business, she is highly skilled to help with Operation HOPE Inc.

For three years Ms. Kubitz has been teaching financial literacy to childreninfourth to 12th grade, visiting them in the McKeesport Area School District schools and the McKeesport YMCA. In the monthlong programs, she teaches students how to balance a checkbook, save money and plan for the future. She also gives advice about loans and smart shopping.

"Not everybody teaches their children the difference between needs and wants," she explains, "That's what we hope to do, show them how hard life can be without financial responsibility. And, somehow, as much as I might have to say, I always learn more than I teach."

William C. Long, program manager of Operation HOPE's Pittsburgh office, nominated Ms. Kubitz for the award.

"I would be remiss if I did not nominate this woman. I have trained over 400 volunteers, and she is the best of all of them," he said.

Mr. Long remembers his first interview with her.

"Within five minutes of listening to her voice on the phone, I knew we had to have this woman working with us. She's dynamic and she's a live wire. And she's taken McKeesport by storm. And on top of all that, she's selfless enough to keep giving elsewhere, like her mission trip."

Last February, Ms. Kubitz spent eight days in the mountains of Guatemala with a medical missions team, a trip supported by the First Presbyterian Church in Murrysville, helping to give aid to the indigenous Mayans. A friend's son, who is a nurse, recommended her to the doctors because of her dauntless enthusiasm and commitment to volunteering. They met with Ms. Kubitz several times before their trip and recognized that she would be an asset on the mission.

They worked under difficult conditions without running water or a sewerage system.

She worked mainly with the children who came to the mission's temporary clinic.

"I showed them how to blow bubbles," she said about the Mayan children. "They were so enthralled with the bubbles. It was like a luxury to them. They followed me everywhere. I didn't speak a word of their language. But we communicated just fine."

The missions team returned in May without Ms. Kubitz, and the children continually asked, "Where is the American lady with all the bubbles?"

Her special way of relating to children also served her well in the two years she volunteered at Children's Hospital and the seven years she has served at Highmark's Caring Place, a center for grieving children and their families.

The volunteering doesn't stop there.

Last September, Ms. Kubitz hosted a coat drive out of her bank's office called Keep McKeesÂport Warm. There was an outpouring of community donations.

"My goodness, I didn't know what to do with all the coats. People are still bringing me garbage bags full of winter clothes."

With the help of the YMCA's Teen Lead, more than 50 garbage bags of donated winterwear were distributed to families in need.

True to the spirit of volunteerism, she said, "I always say yes. I just can't say no. Because, it's not about me. It's about whatever work I'm doing."

Tomorrow: George O'Donnell, founder of the organization that helps those with special needs.


Chatham University student Kara Voorhees just completed an academic internship at the Post-Gazette.


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