Collier: Every Child has attention of Steelers' Mitchell


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Before the end of next week, the Steelers will have convened in earnest for the real work, the work for which they are famous and celebrated and often dominant in the consciousness of their innumerable disciples.

Once the Steelers get to Latrobe and immerse themselves in the clinical, conspiratorial violence necessary to construct the renewed soul of any NFL entity, a lot of people around here will blow by the front page a little faster in the morning.

This team's got issues, after all, issues like few times in its history, so there is less time for serious news.

But John Mitchell won't blow past Page 1.

Even as the assistant head coach of the Steelers, even as the organization's longest-tenured coach in residence, Mitchell will still see the darker forest through the trees of Saint Vincent.

"When I read about a 14-year-old girl stabbed, when I see two kids shot in the East End, these things should not happen in our society," Mitchell said in his office during one of his final calm days this summer. "Somebody has dropped the ball in these situations. Kids can't just fall through the cracks like that."

Mitchell has no children. His own childhood knew little want and less difficulty. But his conscience aches for children, especially those who walk the edges of hopelessness.

"The worst thing to happen to us as kids is we'd get in a fight or drink a beer behind the garage, or smoke a cigarette," he remembered. "Now, kids get into an argument, somebody has to settle it with a gun, and somebody's gonna die."

Mitchell was only a few years into his tenure as Bill Cowher's defensive line coach when he attended a fund-raiser for Every Child, the East End brainchild of Susan Davis that serves vulnerable children and families throughout the region. Struck by the first-person stories of kids Every Child was helping, he started going to the fund-raisers regularly.

"Finally, I decided I wanted to help these people, so I was sitting in my old office at Three Rivers Stadium and I just called them out of the blue," he said. "Didn't tell them who I was. Didn't tell them what I did. Just 'how can I help?' That was 12 years ago. Now, I've been on the board of directors for nine years."

What Mitchell has done for Every Child, and the number of Steelers who have enlisted money and time in that cause with virtually no one outside and few inside the agency knowing about it, is one of those narratives that is annually buried by the perceived urgencies of football.

"I've had players hand me $15,000 for Every Child and say, 'Don't tell them it was me,' " Mitchell said. "They don't want the credit. All kinds of players have done that over the years, and not just money.

"Plaxico Burress picked kids up and took them for pizza," Mitchell said. "Played games with them. Gave us money."

The admiration pours for Mitchell when he recounts such tales, but the people he seems to admire most in this dynamic are the case workers Every Child sends into homes to confront every known strain of hard-times drama.

"Look, I get my -- what -- 15 minutes of fame for 16 weeks every year; nobody says anything about these people. Imagine going into a home where there's trouble, where they are not even sure you're going to be able to help, where they might not want anyone telling them how to correct things. These people have to build a relationship, have to build a rapport. My job is to make their job easier."

Having served more than 5,000 children and their families since 1997, having helped with food, utilities, rent, general expenses, having run programs related to pregnancy, parenting, education, medical care, child development, family preservation, family reunification, special needs adoption, and foster care, Every Child retains both its focus and the reality of funding challenges.

"We charge nothing," Mitchell said. "We apply for grants and we have the fund-raiser. Mike Tomlin was there to speak a couple of years ago and, after he heard the children talk about their experiences with the Every Child programs, with the help they received and what it meant to them, he just got up and said, 'What do you want me to say? What can I possibly add to that?' You can't believe how effective it's been.

"I'm involved because I often wondered, what if the shoe were on the other foot? I don't have kids, but what if my child were in one of these situations? What if it was my family? Who would help me? Who would help us? That's what makes me feel good. If you save someone's life when they're a child, there's no telling what they can do. They've just got to have a chance."

With the Steelers set to get about their real work, I think it's all right to ponder sometimes just what is the real work of the Steelers or of any of us.

"I've had players hand me $15,000 for Every Child and say, 'Don't tell them it was me.' They don't want the credit. All kinds of players have done that over the years, and not just money."

-- John Mitchell


Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com .


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