Volunteers named finalists for Jefferson Awards for Public Service

Winner will be honored at national awards ceremony


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The Rev. Hazel Imig has a photo of herself at 18 on her nonprofit's website. The year is 1969, and she has long, flowing dark hair, parted in the middle -- the typical look of the times. She's gazing ahead, with an optimistic smile.

It marks the time of her life that she decided to help soldiers in need -- the time the body of a dear friend returned home in a closed casket from the Vietnam War.

The 63-year-old Beaver County minister went on to found Hats Off to the Soldiers, a national organization that provides veterans with everyday necessities to help make their lives easier and to thank them for their service.

"If they can get a U.S.A. hero bag or a coat from the public, they feel as if their sacrifice wasn't in vain," she said recently.

For her contributions, she is one of six finalists for Most Outstanding Volunteer in the local Jefferson Awards for Public Service program. The six were tapped from 50 local Jefferson Award winners for 2013. A collection of local agencies and foundations will donate $1,000 on behalf of each finalist to the charity of their choice.

A few years ago, the local program also began recognizing the efforts of volunteer groups. Receiving the Team Award for 2013 is the Retired Nurses Working in Neighborhoods program.

All will be honored at an invitation-only awards ceremony May 6 at Heinz Field, where the Most Outstanding Volunteer will be announced. The winner will represent Western Pennsylvania at the national Jefferson Awards ceremony in Washington, D.C., this summer.

Locally, the Jefferson Awards program is administered by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette with sponsorship by Highmark and BNY Mellon.

Like Rev. Imig, the other finalists have similar stories to tell on what has motivated them to spend hours every week helping others. Some waited until they had extra time in retirement. Others have gotten started even before they're out of elementary school.

The finalists

* Tracee Kirkland didn't sit back and cower in her home because her Lincoln-Lemington neighborhood had become so unsafe that she couldn't take her young child to the park. She took action with her pastor, the Rev. Jacque Fielder, and in 1998 started Concerned Citizens of Greater Pittsburgh. Her activism led to a peace trust established among local gangs to stem violence in the area. The 37-year-old mother of two has gone on to organize coat drives and Toys for Tots collections in Lincoln-Lemington and help create other ventures such as the city's first crisis nursery to benefit not only the neighborhood but the whole Pittsburgh community.

Her profile will appear Monday in the Magazine section.

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* Much emphasis is placed on access to health care, but while some basic services might be covered by insurance, vision or dental services often are out of reach. Evan "Jake" Waxman, 50, an ophthalmologist who lives in Aspinwall, is addressing part of that gap with Guerrilla Eye Service, a mobile eye unit he helped create that provides free eye care to uninsured and underinsured patients in Western Pennsylvania.

His profile will appear Tuesday in the Magazine.

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* They call Arlene Oehling "The Sunshine Lady." The 75-year-old Carrick woman devotes up to 50 hours a month spreading cheer to nursing homes in the Pittsburgh area. After retiring from a secretarial job with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2004, she started visiting local retirement complexes -- telling jokes, wearing costumes and encouraging residents to dance -- especially those in wheelchairs. Ordinarily she has a quiet demeanor, but she lights up when she is entertaining residents, sometimes crowds at a time.

Her profile will appear Wednesday in the Magazine.

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* With a background in community mental health care and aging, Chris Meyer, 65, was looking for a new endeavor as he contemplated retirement. He reached out to Pittsburgh's Global Links, where he started sorting surplus medical supplies that the nonprofit agency collects from local hospitals. After the earthquake devastated Haiti in 2010, he turned his attention to the wheelchair workshop, where he repairs, cleans and swaps out parts on these devices. "Chris has grown into an ideal volunteer, taking on a leadership role and enthusiastically helping to train new volunteers," said Stacy Bodow, who nominated him for a Jefferson Award.

His profile will appear in Friday's Magazine.

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* Instilling volunteerism early in life can make someone a lifelong do-gooder. That could be the destiny of Griffin Kerstetter and Annie Yonas, two O'Hara elementary fourth-graders who have been honored for their work helping the homeless with Home Lost Project. The two best friends collect gently used T-shirts, and with the help of others, sew them into quilts that they give to homeless people. They've also held T-shirt drives and organized volunteer sewing events through the United Way of Allegheny County.

Their profile will appear in Saturday's Magazine.

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* Small everyday necessities such as body wash, shampoo, snacks, gift cards and clothing can go a long way in making a veteran feel welcome and appreciated. That's the goal of Rev. Imig. She spends at least 30 hours a week collecting donations, purchasing supplies and packaging boxes to be shipped to returning soldiers across the U.S.

Her profile will run May 4 in Sunday Magazine.

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* The volunteers of the Retired Nurses Working in Neighborhoods program are making sure elderly people scattered among several Pittsburgh senior centers and apartment buildings are getting the preventive care and health guidance they need. The group has been tapped to receive the Jefferson Team Award, a relatively new category that recognizes group efforts. Their services are provided in conjunction with the Duquesne University School of Nursing: Nurse-Managed Wellness Center.

The group's profile will appear on May 5 in Magazine.


Virginia Linn: vlinn@post-gazette.com; 412-263-1662.

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