A time to give back

Thanksgiving is a day to gather and give thanks while enjoying a bountiful meal with family, friends and loved ones.

Sadly, though, not everyone has that luxury. There are many in this country who are struggling to pay the bills, which are mounting as the cold weather sets in. And with those mounting bills, food insecurity becomes more commonplace for families, including right here in the Pittsburgh region.

That is why the Steelers have partnered with multiple agencies to give back this year for Thanksgiving, making sure the most vulnerable have food on their table or a warm meal this holiday season.

"So many guys have stepped up and I think it's great," said Blayre Holmes-Davis, the Steelers' director of community relations. "They think about themselves growing up and what it would mean to them to have an NFL player come out to their community and not only help them purchase a meal for Thanksgiving but serve dinner too. I think it's important not only for them to make sure they are taking care of the cost of dinner, but to take time out of their schedules to go meet with the community, learn more about them.

"What they are doing shows the tradition of the Steelers way, that we are stepping up not only during the holiday season but all season to make sure our community is supported. It's great to see them do that."

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The Steelers partnered with the Pirates and Penguins for a #BurghProud Thanksgiving Meal Distribution, with players, coaches and staff from all three teams joining forces to distribute turkeys and all the fixings to hundreds in conjunction with the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank and Giant Eagle.

"We started that last year and it's become a great tradition," said Holmes-Davis. "All three teams providing funds and the players being there to support the community for Thanksgiving."

It was a group effort to fight food insecurity in the city in a way only Pittsburgh can come together as one to do. Among the Steelers players on hand were quarterback Mitch Trubisky, cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon and safety Karl Joseph.

"It's awesome," said Trubisky. "I think anytime you can give back to the community it's important. I know it's a big tradition around here. For me being new to the city I wanted to be included in this and help give back in some way. We've got the #BurghProud Thanksgiving Distribution going on now. Families are coming by and we're making sure they have food for Thanksgiving. We have a lot to be thankful for this time of year. We are thankful to help these families, try to bring some holiday cheer and smiles and just have a good time and make sure families have food for the holidays.

"It's cool to see guys from the other teams. Pittsburgh is a great sports town and to see all the teams intertwined and giving back to the city together, it means a lot and I know everybody appreciates it."

Around 300 families served by the food bank were provided turkeys and boxes of food at the drive-up distribution held outside of PNC Park. For these families, financial burdens, food insecurity and fear as to where their next meal is going to come from exists. The food bank partnering with such entities as the Steelers helps to battle those factors.

"We're so blessed as professional athletes," said Witherspoon. "It's an opportunity to give back, spend some time with people in need. We are just out here doing a good thing for the community, and I am proud to be a part of it.

"It's representative of Pittsburgh, the sports community, having all three teams available, offering their time to the community. It's just a good representation of what we are about, and I am happy to be a part of it."

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Defensive tackle Cameron Heyward hosted his annual Thanksgiving food distribution, holding it at the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.

Heyward was joined by teammates T.J. Watt, Tyson Alualu, Chris Wormley and Jamir Jones handling the heavy lifting of turkeys and boxes filled with food, while also spreading smiles to everyone while helping 200 families.

"I want to be a part of my community," said Heyward. "I want to make sure I give back. The Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, they have a market where people can shop and don't have to worry about the stigma of getting food in a different way. It's an awesome opportunity to give back to my community and this is one of the ways to do it.

"It's very important around the holidays. Everybody wants to spend time with their families, and this takes one thing off what you're worried about, whether it's the food you have, so you can sit around the table and enjoy each other. Hopefully we can provide that today."

Heyward is no stranger to giving back to the community, but what he does by coming to the food bank is something that has an instant impact and allows the people to shop with the players in their on-site market.

"We are fortunate to partner with the Steelers organization," said Lisa Scales, President and CEO of the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. "We have players here helping us distribute turkeys and the fixings to over 200 families. Partnering with the Steelers organization allows us to raise awareness about the important issue of food insecurity. It's actually a critical problem that we have in this country and Southwestern Pa., that almost 300,000 of our neighbors are food insecure, which means they don't know where their next meal is coming from. To have the Steelers players here help distribute food, speak to the people who are in need of food, to interact with our volunteers, it's everyone's responsibility to give back and help make a difference in people's lives."

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Take a look at photos from Thanksgiving distributions held by the Pittsburgh Steelers

Members of the offensive line served dinner to Homewood residents through the Community Empowerment Association, also providing gift cards for them to purchase turkeys and all the trimmings for their own Thanksgiving meal.

The dinner was organized by tackle Chukwuma Okorafor, who enlisted his fellow linemen to be a part of it.

"I feel like I have been here for a couple of years and haven't done anything for the community, people outside of my teammates and team," said Okorafor. "I wanted to do something for people in the area to help them."

Okorafor said it felt good to give back and hopes the families felt the same way.

"It's cool to help the people, provide the food and gift cards for them," said Okorafor. "But it's also about them seeing us give our time to them as well. Hopefully it made them feel more special."

Doing events like this at the holiday adds a special element to it for the players, even though Okorafor didn't celebrate Thanksgiving growing up in Nigeria.

"I understand it a little bit," said Okorafor. "I am still learning what it's about and it's pretty cool. Helping out makes it even better.

"Everyone is going to go through a hard time. Us being there for them, it lets them know we care. We understand they might not be able to afford something now, they might need something like this, so it's special."

After serving the meal, the players spent time with the families and kids, signing autographs, taking pictures and enjoying each other.

"It was great to see the Steelers getting involved right in the community," said Amargie Davis, Deputy Director of the Community Empowerment Association. "The children and families had a great time. It's a great idea to give back and see the Steelers organization is doing that. Here we are in the holiday season and it's all about giving, enjoying each other's company, loving on each other and giving back. That's what it's all about."

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Linebacker Alex Highsmith and his wife, Alyssa, donated warm winter blankets to the Urban Impact Foundation for families on Pittsburgh's North Side, as well as pies to help cap their Thanksgiving dinner this week.

The donation will help 175 local families who are aided by Urban Impact's Thanksgiving Distribution.

"It's so important to use this platform to be a blessing to others," said Highsmith. "It's cold now, and to know the blankets might help people stay warm is meaningful. Also, to help provide food to them, it's something people need. I am thankful to be able to do this.

"It's a season of giving. It's more fulfilling to give than to get. When you know someone is warm and they are well fed, it brings fulfillment."

Highsmith has been involved with Urban Impact since arriving in Pittsburgh, an organization he is extremely passionate about.

"It's so important what Pastor Ed Glover is doing and everyone who works at Urban Impact," said Highsmith. "Just to see how they have impacted Pittsburgh, and the North Side area of Pittsburgh in particular, by investing in the youth, the next generation. I love what they do.

"Their sole mission is to bring in the young kids and give them options. With the camps and learning, it's so important. There are so many kids they have had an impact on. Them giving their lives to it means a lot."

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Defensive lineman Montravius Adams, through the Montravius Adams Legacy Foundation, hosted a Thanksgiving Impact dinner for kids at the Carnegie Boys & Girls Club.

"It gives me a break away from football, a more real-life standpoint of what is happening in the world," said Adams. "I got to be out here with the kids, with the people in the community, that help make the team. These are our fans. My background is kind of similar to many of these kids. My non-profit is based on single mothers. My main thing is to try and be a role model for the kids. Try to uplift them the way they uplift me. Just try to make a change in the next person's life."

Adams, who was joined at the dinner by tight end Pat Freiermuth, said he enjoyed just sitting down and talking with the kids while having a family like dinner. And of course, there had to be some football played as well because what would a Thanksgiving meal be without it.

"It was nice," said Adams. "We ate. We played some games. Pat came by for a little bit. We threw the football around for a while. Signing some stuff. We had a good time. It was a blessing."

For Adams, it was all about having an impact on a community that needed a boost.

"That is my main thing," said Adams. "I don't think I had that a lot where I came from, but I know it's something that is needed and something I love to give and share with others."

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Defensive lineman Larry Ogunjobi provided a Thanksgiving dinner for families served by the YWCA, spending an evening with them where he served the dinner and visited with the individuals. Ogunjobi also passed out gift cards to each of the families to help with their own Thanksgiving dinner.

"With Thanksgiving right around the corner, we are serving meals to families, feeding them," said Ogunjobi. "It's always good to be able to give back. It's important to me, doing fellowship in that matter."

Ogunjobi, whose parents, Larry and Mercy Ogunjobi, moved to the United States from Nigeria in 1993, the year before he was born, learned from them what is means to give back.

"My parents have always been givers,' said Ogunjobi. "They used to give out of nothing. So, it gave me a givers' heart, being able to help people that need a little help. I think it's super important. I always want to be a liaison for that because it's important to give back."

For those at the YWCA it was a treat that came at the right time.

"We have partner families from our educational opportunity programs and also from our economic advancement who are very excited to have Thanksgiving dinner, coming together as a family, but also the work we are doing in the community," said Angela Reynolds, CEO of the YWCA of Greater Pittsburgh. "This is such an amazing event. The reason I say that, even me, I am a mother, I have children, I have to prepare for my family. This is a time when all of us are struggling. Prices have gone up. Everything is more expensive.

"To have somebody say I care enough to provide you a Thanksgiving dinner, to come through and say everything is handled, just come and eat. For the Steelers organization to do this, for a player individually to say I care enough about my community to give back, is just tremendous."

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Linebacker T.J. Watt worked hand in hand with 412 Food Rescue, an organization he has been affiliated with for several years now.

"I always enjoy getting involved in the community, and 412 Food Rescue has been a great opportunity for me to get out there and let them know I care about what they are doing," said Watt. "I want to get involved as much as possible. 412 Food Rescue provides so many meals for families that don't necessarily have the opportunity to afford food, especially with Thanksgiving and all of the holidays coming up. It's a way to give back."

Watt helped to pack food at the Millvale Good Food Project, a hunger relief program operated by 412 Food Rescue that transforms surplus foods in healthy, heat-and-eat meals and groceries that are distributed to area residents dealing with food insecurity. Over 500 grocery bags are packed and disturbed weekly in partnership with the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh.

"Food insecurity is something where people can't always control their circumstances as far as struggling," said Watt. "We understand everyone is trying their best, but sometimes you need a helping hand. That is what we are trying to provide. A lot of these families have young kids who don't control the situation they are born into. To be able to help out as much as possible is awesome."

Watt began working with the agency in 2019, choosing to team with 412 Food Rescue, a Pittsburgh based organization that was founded as a response to the disconnect between food waste, hunger and environmental sustainability, because he knows the importance of having proper nutrition and not having to worry about where your next meal is coming from.

The efforts of 412 Food Rescue are made possible by their affiliation with local distributors, mom and pop stores, chain restaurants and urban farms all with the goal of not letting quality food go to waste.

"I think it's important to let everyone know who is donating, those who might want to donate, that everything is getting used," said Watt. "The food is not discarded. It's going to good use and going to make a lot of people happy."

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If you would like to help in the battle against food insecurity, please visit the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.

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