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April 15, 2010

Staff, faculty donate time to help the hungry

Some Pitt employees have gone beyond the annual April Pitt Partnership for Food drive to help the region’s needy.

Kathryn Trent, a groundskeeper in Facilities Management and a member of the Staff Association Council, has volunteered for most “Fourth Thursdays,” the Pitt-sponsored community effort to repackage and distribute food at the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank’s warehouse in Duquesne on the fourth Thursday evening of each month.

“Now that my kids are grown I have more time to volunteer and Pitt makes it easy to participate in this project, with reminder notices and transportation provided to and from campus,” Trent said.

Trent said she’s inspired by her parents who, although in their 80s, still volunteer with Meals on Wheels. “My mother raised seven children and still found time for volunteer work when we were growing up. I’d been looking for something for a while, and this just fits me now that I have more spare time,” she said, adding that any Pitt employee looking for a worthwhile cause should consider the Fourth Thursdays project.

“The first time I went to the warehouse I was stunned to see the numbers of people, just lined up for hours waiting for food. It’s also sad. I saw a lot of older single women. As a single mother, I think older single women sometimes fall through the cracks. Also with all the kids there, it’s very sad. The first time I went, I was just amazed that so many could be needing food. When I leave the warehouse, I really feel good that I have done something to help people who really need it.”

Trent also volunteers for Pitt’s annual Christmas dinner for the needy. She plans to expand her efforts to include food distribution at a South Side food pantry on Saturdays.

Public health faculty member Wesley Rohrer recounted similar experiences at the Food Bank warehouse, where he has participated in several of the Fourth Thursday events.

“Over the past decade, I have had the opportunity to become familiar with the contributions of the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank in the campaign against hunger and malnutrition in our region,” said Rohrer, who co-chairs the University Senate community relations committee, which is focusing its efforts on supplying food for the region’s needy.

“In reflecting on my own experience working on the food packaging and distribution line, I flash back to what appears to be a never-ending line of individuals who in a very orderly process patiently move forward to receive their bags and boxes of food. The clients are diverse in age, ethnicity and style: young mothers enlisting their kids as helpers; young couples who looked uncomfortable in this situation; the many elderly women and men who struggle with their cloth and paper bags, coolers and carts. Most express gratitude for the food offered, some banter with the volunteers while others are more reserved, perhaps due to pride, concern about getting their food safely home, anxiety or fatigue,” Rohrer said.

His most vivid memory of volunteering involved helping an elderly couple carry their food to their car.

“Without intending to listen to their conversation, I recognized eventually a few familiar words and the cadence of Russian, a language that I had never quite mastered decades earlier. To my surprise — perhaps it was the heat and fatigue — I attempted a few halting phrases in what must have been laughable Russian,” Rohrer said. “The elderly gentleman responded by courteously acknowledging my effort and then offered me a few more phrases that I might recognize. Soon I was receiving free instruction and encouragement from the pair and we left as friends for the moment, having bridged the language gap. It was a small and unexpected pleasure, an encounter in community that I imagine is experienced often in some variation by most who volunteer in direct service.”

Closer to campus, the increasing need for food in the Oakland community prompted the establishment last December of the Oakland Food Pantry, which has seen its clients grow from 165 to 195 last month.

Adrienne Walnoha is an adjunct faculty member in the School of Social Work and executive director of Community Human Services (CHS), the nonprofit organization that runs the Oakland Food Pantry, a partner of the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. The Oakland Pantry is located in St. Hyacinth’s Church, 3201 Craft Place. (For information, call 412/246-1648.)

“Typically, people come on our specified dates once a month, and are eligible for one bag of groceries per household member, up to five bags,” she said. “But we also provide emergency food bags when needed at other times. We don’t turn away anyone who has an emergency need.”

The pantry is staffed by CHS and a Pitt student and includes student volunteers from across the University, although most come from the School of Social Work, Walnoha said. Some Pitt staff and faculty also have volunteered there, but she encourages anyone who would like to volunteer to do so directly with Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.

“They have more pressing needs for volunteers than we do,” Walnoha pointed out.

She expects the number of clients at the food pantry to rise in the summer months with seasonal labor being laid off, such as some Sodexo workers and employees at Forbes-Fifth businesses.

“But we’re also seeing people who have a full-time job and have had to take a part-time job in addition just to make ends meet, who get laid off from their part-time job. Even more what we’re seeing, and have been seeing for quite a while now, is with food costs going up and utility, health care and other costs going up that more and more people have less and less resources to buy food. It’s not just the homeless or people living in poverty, it’s the underemployed, it’s our neighbors. There is a real need in our Oakland community and it’s growing. We don’t see any ebb to that tide. Rather, we see it just growing and growing,” Walnoha said.

“Pitt has been a cherished partner; we’re very lucky. The Oakland pantry would not have happened without Pitt. I know of no other university that has responded to an important community issue in this way. They send us their volunteers, they helped build our stocking shelves and they even stocked the shelves with food when we first opened.”

Pitt’s efforts to help the hungry have been rewarded with more than the personal satisfaction of its volunteers. On June 8, Steve Zupcic, veteran Pitt Partnership for Food drive and Faculty and Staff in Service to Communities coordinator, will be honored by the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank with the 2010 Hunger Awareness Day Award for his “passion and long-term commitment for the fight against hunger in our community.”

The award letter noted that Zupcic had “doubled Pitt’s Partnership for Food results in just one year. You have motivated thousands to take action in the fight against hunger and made it possible for the Food Bank to reach hundreds more … through your passion and persuasiveness.”

For more information on Fourth Thursdays or other volunteer projects, contact  Zupcic at 412/624-7709 or Online sign up also is available at

—Peter Hart

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