A newsmaker you should know: Collier woman honored for nonprofit work with youth

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Kelly Rohrich acknowledges how lucky she is. A few years ago, the Collier woman, a mother of three, looked at her life and realized she had to pass some of that good fortune along.

Mrs. Rohrich and friend, Ellen Thomeier, also of Collier, were attending an event with their husbands when they saw a presentation by A Child's Place at Mercy, a part of the Pittsburgh Mercy Health System, and decided they wanted to start an organization to help children.

Mrs. Rohrich's husband, David Rohrich of Rohrich Automotive Group, was all for the idea.

"When we were newly married, he told me to find something I am passionate about and make it my cause," she said.

The two women formed Operation Backpack, a nonprofit that collects and distributes new items for displaced children and families. They work with various local organizations, including Familylinks Inc.

On June 1, Mrs. Rohrich received the Priddy Award from that organization.

The award is named after Kelly Priddy of Robinson, who, for more than 10 years, rallied volunteers to provide holiday dinners to homeless young people through Familylinks and its predecessor, The Whale's Tale.

"We honor someone who, like Kelly, makes a difference," Frederick Massey, CEO of Familylinks, said of the award. "This year we honor Kelly Rohrich -- she has been so generous."

Familylinks Youth Services assists teenagers who cannot live at home for various reasons. Operation Backpack helps provide them with school supplies and personal items as well as gifts around the holidays.

"The gifts are so important," Mr. Massey said. "We try to have our kids and families that have to reside with us have normal holidays, and having a gift can really make a difference."

Mrs. Rohrich said she and Mrs. Thomeier came up with the idea for backpacks after they learned that youth who are removed from their home because of neglect, abuse or other issues, leave with nothing other than the clothing the child is wearing at the time.

"The authorities go in and take them without anything. So you have a child that has already been abused or neglected and they get to take nothing that will comfort them," she said.

By providing personal care items in a backpack, Mrs. Rohrich said, the organization hopes to help ease a very difficult time for the child.

Operation Backpack started in 2004. Since Toyota is one of the brands of cars Mr. Rohrich carries at his dealership, he suggested the women meet with that regional manager.

"They were so generous and helped us raise $89,000," Mrs. Rohrich said. "That is what we used to kick us off."

Originally, the nonprofit was operated out of the Rohrichs' garage, but when the dealership opened a new warehouse, Mr. Rohrich created an office and storage area for Operation Backpack. The auto parts drivers make the deliveries to the shelters and programs that the organization assists.

"We have been so fortunate ... we are able to put 100 percent of the donations toward the programs," Mrs. Rohrich said. She and Mrs. Thomeier donate their time to the organization, which is totally staffed by volunteers.

"We have Scouting groups and lots of other volunteers that help us," she added.

Mrs. Rohrich said she is humbled by the award.

"We never thought we would be recognized. We just want to bring a smile to someone," she said.

Mrs. Rohrich said one of the most moving stories from their efforts was shared after a Christmas holiday. An 18-year-old had been given gifts but did not show any reaction to receiving them. Concerned, a program director asked him if anything was wrong.

"He told her he had never had a Christmas gift before and had always wondered what it would be like to open one," Mrs. Rohrich said.

"She told me there wasn't a dry eye in the place. That is what makes it all worthwhile."

neigh_west - neigh_south

Kathleen Ganster, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.


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