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North Hills Monthly

Spread the Love This Holiday Season

Dec 01, 2016 07:39AM ● By Jennifer Monahan

Santa's House at the food bank

Generosity to others is a wonderful way to celebrate the holiday season. If standing in long lines with cranky shoppers makes you cringe, consider creative gifts of time—rather than merchandise—to spread love during the holidays.

North Hills Community Outreach (NHCO) offers a range of opportunities for people to help with programs, events and direct service. As a partner in the United Way’s Open Your Heart to a Senior initiative, NHCO recruits volunteers to help seniors with tasks such as grocery shopping, transportation, raking leaves or shoveling snow. Volunteers can also sign on to visit and offer companionship to elderly members of the community.

NHCO’s In Service to Seniors program provides similar kinds of assistance. Often these small acts have a large impact on a senior’s ability to remain independent in his or her own home.

“The programs are rewarding for both the volunteer and the senior,” said Sharon Wolf, executive director of NHCO. “We see wonderful friendships develop. Having someone come in to help is a real blessing for so many people.”

Seasonal sharing projects such as Thanksgiving on Every Table, Winter Coat Collection and the Holiday Toy Shop provide a chance for individuals, families, civic or church groups to volunteer. With NHCO’s Holiday Toy Shop, for example, volunteers organize toys and staff the shopping events where parents with demonstrated financial need can select gifts for their children. 

Interested volunteers go through an orientation process, Wolf explained. Its purpose is to explain expectations and to help volunteers find a good fit for their interests and availability. For details, visit 

United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania (UWSWPA) offers a host of opportunities for individuals to find their volunteer niche—everything from assisting folks with tax preparation to mentoring a middle school student. This holiday season, one signature program asks volunteers to Give the Gift of Reading. 

United Way is committed to putting 100,000 books into the hands of children ranging from preschool-age to third grade, according to Lois Mufuka Martin, chief volunteer engagement officer for UWSWPA. Children who read at grade level by third grade, Martin said, are four times more likely to graduate from high school than those who do not.

United Way has avenues for people to give time to its Give the Gift of Reading program at whatever level works best. Volunteers can sort and distribute books, create literacy kits, lead read-along activities with students or host a book drive. Details are available at 

The Rose E. Schneider Family YMCA started a program in March 2015 that asks volunteers primarily for the gift of themselves. One Friday per month, the YMCA hosts a Take 5 Teen Respite Night, providing two hours of supervised social activities for teens and young adults with special needs to give their families and caregivers a night off.

Senior Program Director Karen Guise brought this Temple University program to the local YMCA. Volunteers attend a two-hour training session with Guise. Approximately 12 trained adults are on hand each month to host the respite night. 

A typical evening includes a meal catered by a local restaurant, social time in the YMCA’s youth and family center (which features a pool table, air hockey, Xbox, lounge space and a large-screen TV) and an activity such as swimming, basketball, kickball, open gym time or a movie.

While trained Take 5 volunteers must be 18 or over, Guise welcomes high school students to spend time with the guests.

“We have lots of teens and high school students who come help out. There is a group of four or five friends from a Boy Scout troop who come every month. They hang out and play basketball with the kids,” Guise said. To find out more, contact Karen Guise at

Anyone interested in spreading holiday cheer can find ample opportunity at the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank’s Santa’s House, which is part of downtown Pittsburgh’s holiday market. Sponsored by Peoples Natural Gas and operated by the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, the holiday market begins in November and lasts through most of December. 

“It’s a fun opportunity for families and friends to volunteer together,” said Maggie Beldecos, director of corporate and community engagement for the food bank. Corporate, civic and church groups often volunteer at Santa’s House, where they typically take a three- or four-hour shift. Volunteer teams collect donations, facilitate photos with Santa and talk to people about the food bank.

Each $5 donation provides $25 worth of meals to families in need, Beldecos said, and volunteers make the experience fun. Groups in the past have dressed up as elves, sung Christmas carols and found ways to encourage general merriment for volunteers and patrons alike. Volunteers are given a brief orientation at the beginning of the shift, and parking downtown is free for the event. Sign up online at  

With such a wide range of volunteer opportunities, giving the gift of presence—not just presents—offers a great way to celebrate the holidays.