Baldwin Borough man instills in sons the idea to give back
December 21, 2013 9:13 PM
Don Zagrocki, center, with his sons, Kyle, 12, left, and Donny, 14, in their Baldwin Borough apartment.
By Anya Sostek / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Don Zagrocki points to a small table wedged between the living room couch and the kitchen of his two-bedroom apartment in Baldwin Borough. It's draped with a holly tablecloth and red and green place mats, ready for the homemade meatballs simmering on the stove.
"That was the first thing we bought -- $99 at Kmart," he said, pointing to the table and referring to his early days as a single father of two young boys. "All we had was a box in the kitchen. That's what we were using as a table."
Mr. Zagrocki and his boys, 14-year-old Donny and 12-year-old Kyle, won't benefit from Toys for Tots this year. The days of standing in line in the cold at the Civic Arena for Matchbox cars or board games are years in the past. But that doesn't mean that Mr. Zagrocki's forgotten them.
"There's been times when I was on my knees and people gave to us," he said. "It made us humble, thankful. Even though you see bad on TV, there's a lot of good in the world."
Whenever he's been able, Mr. Zagrocki has volunteered his time at places like the Steel Valley Family Center, where his family received services for years. He has served as president of the center's family council and served as a role model for other families, said site director Mary Paull.
"I always say give to other families," he said. "People gave enough to us. We want to give back."
For the past 10 years, Mr. Zagrocki has worked as a contract cleaner at the post office in Homestead. Not content just to clean on the job, his apartment is immaculate, ringed with Christmas figurines bought and inherited over the years: a dancing snowman, a musical gingerbread house, an angel that lights up.
He was able this summer to move his family from Munhall to a nicer apartment in Baldwin, but they are far from flush. Because of moving expenses, "the boys know Christmas will be light this year," he said. Donny has already gotten his main present: two new parrotfish for his aquarium.
But it's nothing like when the boys were young. When Mr. Zagrocki took custody, Kyle was just a month old, he said, and he was working as a pizza deliveryman. He had no money for diapers, and would occasionally receive some for free working a second job at a consignment shop.
The family received help over the years not just from Toys for Tots but also from Project Bundle-Up, the Steel Valley Family Center and The Salvation Army. Mr. Zagrocki remembers the basketballs and board games that his boys wouldn't have gotten otherwise. "They made our Christmas happier and brighter," he said.
Sitting on the couch, Kyle talked about his fond memories of being able to go to Macy's and pick out a nice coat for himself through Project Bundle-Up. And while he might not have realized what Toys for Tots was providing at the time, he does now. "It helped us out so Dad didn't have to spend a lot of money," he said.
Mr. Zagrocki has tried to instill a strong work ethic and a desire to help others in his boys. When an elderly neighbor gives them a couple dollars for carrying groceries in or holding a door, they put the money on a desk in the living room instead of keeping it for themselves, he said proudly. This summer, when they moved, he had the boys give the toys they had outgrown to children in the neighborhood who could use them.
"I wouldn't change it for a minute," he said, of the way his life has worked out. "Sometimes when you have hard times you appreciate it more."
Since 1947, generous Pittsburgh Post-Gazette readers have helped families like Mr. Zagrocki's by donating to the Goodfellows Fund. Tax-deductible contributions support Toys for Tots and The Salvation Army's Treasures for Children program. Donations can be made using the coupon that accompanies this story or online at www.post-gazette.com.
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