Filling every table: Poverty in the suburbs may not be readily visible, but it's there
November 18, 2016 12:00 AM
From left: Nancy Verbos, Nancy Cooper, Deborah Richert and Mary Ann Kuhn work to sort food items at the North Hills Community Outreach. The NHCO will provide Thanksgiving dinner for more than 700 families this year.
Nancy Verbos carries bags of collected food items in the basement of the North Hills Community Outreach.
Mary Ann Kuhn of McCandless sorts through food items in the basement of the North Hills Community Outreach.
Mary Ann Kuhn and Nancy Verbos go over food items in the basement of the North Hills Community Outreach.
By Linda Wilson Fuoco / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Cans and cans of cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie mix, and ingredients to make stuffing and gravy are stacked high on a table.
The stacks diminish rapidly as volunteers sort the food into grocery bags to ensure there will be “Thanksgiving on Every Table” for the more than 700 suburban families served by the food pantries of North Hills Community Outreach.
Also going into each bag are items needed to complete a traditional Thanksgiving dinner: instant mashed potatoes, canned vegetables, pie crust mix, evaporated milk, muffin mix, napkins — and a $15 grocery store certificate to buy a turkey.
Last year, the “Thanksgiving on Every Table” program run by NHCO provided holiday meals for 723 families; the year before it was 850. This year’s numbers are not yet finalized.
Some of those receiving help live in communities that generally are viewed as affluent. For example, six households in Fox Chapel received services last year. That’s in addition to 14 in Franklin Park, 20 in Ben Avon, 248 in Ross and 334 in Shaler.
“Don’t get me started about suburban poverty,” said Carolyn Pschirer, director of services at NHCO. “Just because we’re not stepping over homeless people on the sidewalk doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
“They are hidden in plain sight, often doubled up with family and friends. Reasons for need varies. Many of our families work, but they are working at lower-level jobs. Many are seniors on a fixed income, many are on Social Security disability.”
Circumstances that can lead to a need for help include “job loss, divorce and disasters, including fires and floods,” said Jennifer Kissel, director of communications for NHCO.
“We have survivors of domestic abuse. Adults with illnesses who are unable to work. A married couple in their mid-50s who both lost good jobs in the recession and are now about to lose their home. In Bellevue, we serve a small population of refugees. The list goes on.
“Last year, we only served about 38 percent of those who lived in poverty in northern Allegheny County. The others either don’t seek help or get help at other agencies.”
Need is especially acute at this time of year because of the onset of winter heating bills and the holiday season.
NHCO started collecting food for the “Thanksgiving on Every Table” program in mid-October, with distribution taking place Nov. 3 through today.
Volunteers worked 140 unpaid hours to make that happen, said Vicki Burstynowicz, coordinator of the NHCO Sharing Projects.
One of those volunteers is Nancy Verbos of Franklin Park, who helped sort food for the “Thanksgiving on Every Table” at NHCO’s headquarters in Hampton.
One of the volunteers’ tasks is to make sure that none of the donated food is past its expiration date, said Ms. Verbos, who has volunteered at NHCO for 10 years.
Donated food items that are not on the typical Thanksgiving menu are placed on shelves for the regular monthly food pantry distribution.
Although the Thanksgiving drive has ended, there are other ways to help through NHCO.
Incorporated in 1987, the nonprofit has 28 employees and 1,736 volunteers and provides an array of services in addition to its food pantries in Hampton, Millvale and Bellevue.
More than 3,814 families each year have access to NHCO employment programs and services that help find affordable housing. The organization also offers a program for car repairs and maintenance and another that helps with tax preparation.
Seasonal programs provide coats and school supplies to students who need them.
A holiday toy drive is accepting donations of items through Dec. 14. Needed are new toys, games, sporting equipment, sports apparel and gift cards for ages from birth to 18, Ms. Burstynowicz said. Donations can be dropped off from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays at NHCO headquarters, 1975 Ferguson Road, or from 9 a.m. to noon Dec. 3 at the food pantry behind the office.
Families who need toys should call 412-487-6316 to make an appointment.
Thanks to an anonymous donor, $25,000 in cash donations will be matched through Dec. 31. Contributions can be mailed to NHCO, 1975 Ferguson Road, Allison Park, PA 15101.
Donations for the Sharing Winter Warmth program, which will provide more than 500 households with $50 to help pay heating or electric bills, are being accepted through Jan. 31. For information: nhco.org or 412-487-6316.
Linda Wilson Fuoco: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1953.
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