When the young adults of Lauren's Work get together to assemble care packages for other nonprofit agencies, they are giving of themselves and getting something in return.
What they give is their time and attention. What they get is occupational therapy, a workout of motor and social skills and the satisfaction of improving someone else's lot.
Now these young adults, who have developmental disabilities and range in age from 18 to 30, are getting a special bonus. They have been named as group recipients of a 2008 Jefferson Award for Public Service.
Members of Lauren's Work and six other individual winners will be honored at a public ceremony on Feb. 12 at the Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History. The award is administered locally by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette; sponsors are Highmark, The Pittsburgh Foundation and The Heinz Endowments.
Dewey & Kaye, a division of McCrory &McDowell, Downtown, will donate $1,000 to Lauren's Work on the group's behalf.
On a recent Saturday at the Mt. Lebanon Recreation Center, the volunteers put together 100 toiletry bags, 100 Valentine bags and sorted more than 300 colored eggs for Operation Easter Bag, all for American troops overseas. Later they will fill the plastic eggs with candy and put them in Ziploc bags with shredded paper for grass.
On average, Lauren's Work volunteers complete a dozen projects a year with 10 to 12 volunteer hours a month. Member Melissa Pasquarelli, 27, of Upper St. Clair, said she likes the work because it makes her feel good to help other people.
"Getting together with my friends and stuff is the most fun," Ms. Pasquarelli said.
Another member from Upper St. Clair, Matthew Dee, 27, is "past enthusiastic when he comes out of a Lauren's Work project," according to his mom, Jean Dee. When the organization's founder sends out fliers, "the first thing his friends say to each other is 'Did you answer for Lauren's Work yet?'
"Everyone functions at whatever level they can," Mrs. Dee said. "The projects are skill-appropriate, and the snacks and working with peer helpers from the high school make it fun. They want to go back almost the minute they're done."
The organization was founded in 2007 by Sue Shingle, of Mt. Lebanon, as her daughter turned 18 and was entering a transition phase. Born with mental retardation, Lauren Shingle still needed care. But her mom also knew her daughter was willing and able to do certain tasks with supervision.
So Ms. Shingle quit her job as an associate director at the University of Pittsburgh School of Health Sciences to look after her daughter. That summer, in honor of a family wedding, the Shingles put together toiletry packets for Ronald McDonald House in Cleveland, gathering sample-size products and wrapping the packages in bows.
"Lauren was so engaged in the activity. She helped collect the items, sorted and counted them out. It was really cool to watch. I thought, 'Why couldn't a bunch of her friends do this?' "
Ms. Shingle arranged for a group of young adults from the South Hills to do a project for Military Connections, which assembles and ships care packages to American servicemen and servicewomen overseas. Their first project, stuffing Christmas stockings, led to a regular schedule of pitching in for the troops.
Summer Tissue, founder and president of Military Connections, said her organization would not be able to do what it does without volunteers like those from Lauren's Work, whose skills have improved hugely over time.
"When we first met them three years ago there was some struggle getting it done," said Miss Tissue, of Bethel Park, who won a 2006 Jefferson Award for creating Military Connections.
"Three years later they were faster than my other volunteers. They stuff cartons and Easter eggs and they just fly through every project. They have come such a long way in a short time."
Military Connections is still a client; so are the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, Stand Up for Kids, which serves homeless teens, and others. Members of the group are joined by volunteers from local high schools or colleges who are interested in working with this population, as well as a small band of adults who work on grantmaking and donation drives. But most of the labor is done by Lauren's Work volunteers.
Sometimes a parent will pitch in as well, but most use it as "respite time" for running errands or taking a much-needed break.
Lauren's Work is a registered nonprofit organization so donors receive tax write-offs. The group ran on a shoestring budget of $6,000 last year, so Ms. Shingle is always looking for creative talent. Right now, the group needs computer help, including getting its Web site up and running.
Ms. Shingle noted the symmetry of the volunteers helping themselves by helping others.
"How do we get along with each other, how do we work as a team, how do we advocate for ourselves? It's a safe environment for them to try to do new things. We want them to find their voice so they can say, 'Hey, I'm interested in doing this.' "
Ultimately, Ms. Shingle wants to develop a business model that others can follow to start their own versions of Lauren's Work.
"Anyone can utilize their local community center like I do, recruit local high school students and find businesses to support the project," she said. "I want to get the plan down so it can go to any community."
More information about Lauren's Work is available at 412-343-2202.
Sally Kalson can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1610. First Published February 1, 2009 5:00 AM