A day filled with smiles and joy

There were smiles. There was laughter. There was excitement.

There was also hope, delivered by players that gave of their time to make a difference.

On a day they could have just rested and relaxed, Steelers players were out in the community, helping in areas where it's needed the most.

The Steelers rookie class delivered backpacks filled with back-to-school needs to wide-eyed students and packed boxes for those struggling with food insecurity, doing something to help the most vulnerable in the area.

And JuJu Smith-Schuster spread joy at the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf, where he connected with the young students and even learned how to sign.

Steelers rookies spent time at the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, Duquesne City School District and the Best of the Batch Foundation

With students back to school, the need for basic necessities is still strong. Especially in some of the underserved areas.

The Steelers rookie class worked hand-in-hand with former Steelers quarterback Charlie Batch to hand out backpacks filled with school supplies to several hundred kids in the Duquesne City School District, as well as teacher bags filled with all the necessities.

"It was good," said rookie center Kendrick Green. "Definitely something different that we did with the team. The guys enjoyed themselves. I would definitely like to do something like this again. I have done stuff in the community before, but this is the first time with the Steelers. It was fun.

"The kids looked at us like we were superheroes. Their faces lit up interacting with them. It was a fun time."

And yes, smiles were definitely plentiful, from the kids and the players.

"Seeing those smiles made me smile," said rookie safety Tre Norwood. "It means so much to me. It just touches me to be able to make those kids smile. It made my day. Seeing them smile makes me happy.

"The biggest impact it had on me was how much a ray of light we bring to the community. It's about being a positive influence and having an impact in any way possible. It made my day. I love doing stuff like this. I want to do more of it."

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Batch and his Best of the Batch Foundation have been delivering backpacks to schools where the need is strongest as part of his 'Batch Packs' program through the years.

"We started out small and we continue to grow in a manner where we are now," said Batch. "When you see the smiles on the kid's faces, that makes it all well worth it. A lot of times we now get requests from school districts and people are reaching out because they need assistance. Behind the scenes there are so many volunteers and people who support our organization to be able to provide not only bags but supplies and we even do teachers bags because we're thanking the teachers for what they do."

Getting the rookies to help distribute the backpacks was a fun treat for the students, who were filled with excitement the entire time.

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"We all know how passionate the Rooney family is about giving back to the community, and that ultimately trickles down to the players," said Batch. "I'm fortunate enough to be able to still be here in the city I am from. I know the impact they have on the area giving back. I've seen it.

"The rookies chose to help the foundation, so we just really respect and appreciate it. It's ultimately things that are learned from the Rooney family. I'm trying to continue to carry that torch and show these young guys here's what you can do on your off day. It's up to you what you want to do to give back. We can now instill in them as a young player, and then ultimately as they become the veterans in the locker room, they'll continue to educate and teach those other young guys what it takes to give back and how to go about doing it."

The rookies also visited the Best of the Batch Foundation headquarters, seeing the work that Batch does in the community and with their educational programs, and getting an update on the construction of their new facility.

"We're showing them here's our community center, but we also want to show you all of our STEAM programs that are going to be provided," said Batch. "Hopefully it gets them thinking outside the box to say, I can do this in my own town, or I can support something here in Pittsburgh. It gives them different options and gets them to think outside the box to say I can have an impact on my community."

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A stop at the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank in Duquesne, Pa., is something that can change you. The vast warehouse might seem cold from the outside, but on the inside the warmth comes from the love that the work is done with. And love was something that was plentiful as the rookies rolled up their sleeves and got to work.

"There is a lot that goes into a food bank," said Green, who along with his fellow rookies packed over 800 boxes of food. "That was news to me. It really opened my eyes. That was fun. There were people that were there volunteering three hours before we got there, and we were working. They were there three hours before us doing all of the work too. I commend those people as well."

Volunteers are the backbone of the food bank, and having the rookies lend a hand helped to shine a light on the difference people can make.

"We're so excited to have them out here," said Lisa Scales, President and CEO of the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. "We know that professional athletes are often viewed as leaders in the community and in Pittsburgh. This cannot be truer for the Steelers players. This is an opportunity for the rookies to step up and shine as leaders and provide a great example of what it means to be a professional athlete who gives back to their community. For them to come out and volunteer their time on their day off, we're just so grateful for that."

The Covid-19 pandemic has opened eyes to the issue of food insecurity in the community, with those already struggling finding themselves suffering even more, and a new segment of the population facing struggles as well. The Steelers and the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank have partnered long before the pandemic but stepped up even more during it to work together as one.

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"These are trying times," said Scales. "Many of our neighbors are still struggling. Due to the pandemic, we've seen a 31% increase in the rate of food insecurity in southwestern Pennsylvania. In children, the increase has been 41%. With more than 340,000 people in southwestern Pennsylvania who are food insecure, we know that all too often, kids are going to bed hungry. Seniors are making the tough choice of paying for medicine or buying groceries. And parents are skipping meals so that their kids can eat.

"We're deeply grateful to the Steelers organization for partnering with us for many years in the fall, to ensure a brighter future for all our neighbors. Additionally, the Steelers have reached out to offer support during times of crisis, such as during the early days of the pandemic. We partnered on holding a drive-up distribution near Heinz Field that provided food for tens of thousands of meals. Receiving food and these drive-up distributions has been a lifesaver for many of our neighbors, who have told me they weren't sure if they could make it through the month without that food. And as athletes, the players know how important good nutrition is so teaming up is the winning game plan. Both organizations want to ensure everyone in our region has consistent access to nutritious food."

The visit from the rookies comes at a key time, as September is Hunger Action Month, a time to really make an impact.

"Just hearing the information, how many families, individuals are in need," said Norwood. "Then to be able to spend some time at the warehouse, packing up things and help them with their needs. That meant a lot. That warehouse has a huge impact on the community. Even to just have a little impact and help out meant a lot. It's something I love to do. It's for a good cause. I just want to have a positive impact here in Pittsburgh and with my community back home. Anytime I can help, I will.

"It's bigger than football. We want to help in the community anyway possible."

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In addition to packing the items for distribution, the rookies also received a tour of the facility, seeing the scale and scope of what takes place there.

"They now know that hunger and food insecurity is a significant problem in our country and right here in Southwestern Pennsylvania," said Scales. "But it's often hidden from us. We see people every day who are hungry, we just don't know it. We can't always tell who's hungry, who's not hungry. So, for us to help to educate the players on how large of a problem this is, it can help everyone. Think of it, 340,000 people face food insecurity here. How many seats are in Heinz Field, and how many times would you have to fill it to reach 340,000 people?

"To be able to share with the rookies how significant a problem this is and also what we can do together to solve hunger, because it really is pulling together as a community to combat, food insecurity. It's a team effort. And this is what Pittsburghers are best at doing. We can all be part of the team."

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The rookies weren't the only ones out in the community on Tuesday. Receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster warmed the hearts of kids at the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf when he visited with them, going to two classrooms to pick up some football terminology in sign language.

"We have a lot of students who are big Steelers fans, as you can imagine," said Dr. Steve Farmer, the school's CEO. "I think it'll be just a great opportunity for them to meet a player that they see on TV often, so I think it'll be very impactful."

Smith-Schuster learned how to sign offense, defense, special teams and also share that he plays receiver for the Steelers.

"This is a really great opportunity. It's awesome," said Smith-Schuster. "What I am learning today is unbelievable. With the kids, you see their expressions when you walk in the room and they are super excited. Me learning a couple of things is great.

"It's really cool. It's something if we used sign language (as a team), can we be ahead of the curve. When stadiums are loud, if we were able to use sign language that would be cool. Last week we were playing against the Bills and it was so loud in the stadium I couldn't even talk to you right here (gesturing in front of him). You wouldn't even be able to hear me. It's so cool that these kids can do their sign language. They are so quick and so fast, and I am trying to keep up, trying to remember as much as possible. I think it's something that could be used in the future."

Smith-Schuster, who learned how to sign JuJu when he was in high school, met a student from the Western Pa. School for the Deaf in the past, forming a connection that made him want to go and visit the school.

"This is amazing," said Smith-Schuster of the school. "It's awesome. It's unbelievable. You see the outside and it's a cool campus. Then you walk inside, you walk through these halls, and it's way bigger. It's really cool."

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