Jefferson Awards: Dad works hard for special needs children

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Like so many parents and siblings of special-needs children, George O'Donnell felt the pain reflected in his son's eyes when other children ignored him or adults treated him as a lesser being.

"Once he left school and came home," Mr. O'Donnell says of George Jr., who has cerebral palsy, "there was nothing for him to do. People treated him like he was a disease."

When his son was 10, Mr. O'Donnell, who loved to bowl, began a bowling league at Nesbit's Lanes in Plum that would welcome special-needs and typical children, giving each the opportunity to have fun and to learn from one another. The idea developed into Friends to Friends, a nonprofit organization Mr. O'Donnell founded and heads that now serves 285 special-needs children and their families.

His activism has earned Mr. O'Donnell a 2008 Jefferson Award for Public Service. The award, which honors outstanding volunteerism, is administered locally by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and sponsored by Highmark, The Pittsburgh Foundation and The Heinz Endowments.

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Mr. O'Donnell and six other awardees will be honored at 7 p.m. Feb. 12 during a public ceremony at Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History. The FISA Foundation will donate $1,000 to Friends to Friends on Mr. O'Donnell's behalf.

When he nominated Mr. O'Donnell for the award, Dr. Edward Donnelly III said that his son and daughter both volunteered for Friends to Friends and came away with a different attitude toward kids with disabilities.

The experience brings children "understanding at a very young age, when they're forming a lot of their opinions," Dr. Donnelly says. "Later in life they look back and realize they don't have as many of the prejudices and biases as some of their peers have.

"I have also seen firsthand the happiness these sports bring to all the children and the pride in the faces of parents knowing their kids are enjoying the same sense of excitement and accomplishment as most kids their ages. One mother began crying when she received her son's baseball pictures -- something every Little League parent takes for granted. She said she never dreamed she would ever see her son playing baseball, in a league, in a uniform. It's joys such as this that we take for granted and special-needs kids and their families miss so much."

Mr. O'Donnell, a 58-year-old disabled veteran, founded Friends to Friends in 1995. He works every week, 10 months of the year, to make sure events flow. The organization now also sponsors an annual fishing tournament, a baseball league, and a second bowling league in Brookville, Jefferson County. Sometimes a company donates Pirates tickets and the children head to PNC Park.

He's an affable man with sandy hair and blue eyes that twinkle when he describes the joy his young charges display at play and they tear while recounting an occasion when he helped grant a child's last wish. A Pittsburgh native who grew up in Plum, he and his wife, Karen, of 34 years were "childhood sweethearts. We've been together since we were 14."

He credits the endurance of "Friends to Friends" to her support. "If it wasn't for my wife and her contribution of time, it just wouldn't have happened. She personifies the word family."

Besides their 25-year-old son, the O'Donnells have a daughter, Katie (short for Kathleen), an effervescent 15-year-old freshman, who was born in Moscow and was 7 when they adopted her. "She fits in like a glove," her father says proudly as she bounds in the door of their Murrysville home from school on a snowy afternoon.

Richard Nesbit, owner of Nesbit's Lanes, praises Friends to Friends and Mr. O'Donnell, saying he does a great job with the children. "The kids have a good time in a safe environment." He says the bowling nights also "relieve some of the stress from the families, who sit and watch and socialize with other families."

Michael Dusch, manager of Brookville Lanes, where the second league began two years ago, says, "It's a wonderful thing that [Mr. O'Donnell] started." Attendance has grown steadily and the program has expanded to serve individuals also in Clearfield and Clarion counties.

The continuing motivation for Mr. O'Donnell's actions is his distaste for the prejudice that he has seen toward individuals with disabilities.

"What I'm trying to do is bring peace and understanding about everyone having a place," he said. "You defeat evil by doing more good."

For information about the organization or to get involved, call 724-733-4439 or visit

Friday: Nancy Heil, who runs a ministry that provides blankets, clothes, food and other essentials for the homeless.

Mary Thomas can be reached at or 412-263-1925.


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