A time to give back

It's the most wonderful time of the year.

And for Steelers players, they want to make sure the happiness and joy of the holiday season is felt all throughout the community.

This year, though, they are doing it a little differently.

While many players had in person events planned to give back to the community, they have had to shift their plans because of the NFL's protocols.

But the holiday spirit is still alive and well, and they are adapting and still giving back.

* * *

Rookie tight end Pat Freiermuth was excited to take kids from the North Hills area shopping for holiday gifts, but instead of doing it himself he provided gift cards so gifts could be purchased for the kids since he couldn't be there in person.

"I was very fortunate and grateful to grow up in a home that was able to celebrate Christmas in a way that we did," said Freiermuth. "Having the ability to help those kids that may not have the most ideal Christmas and help their families make this holiday time a little more special is all I wanted to do."

Freiermuth has become a fan favorite on the field this year, but his goal is to become someone who gives back in the community as well, and he is doing just that.

"Being new to the Pittsburgh area and the community I want to get involved and show I'm not only here to play football for the city, but to give back and be a role model for the young kids of Pittsburgh."

* * *

Receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster did his best Santa impersonation this year, giving back to multiple organizations to help make the holidays merry and bright.

Once again Smith-Schuster, through the JuJu Foundation, partnered with Pay Away the Layaway to pay for layaways for families in the Pittsburgh and Compton, California areas.

"It feels good to be able to pay for people's gifts for the holidays," said Smith-Schuster, who was able to do several events in person before protocols changed. "There are a lot of people out there who aren't fortunate enough to have the Christmas they want. Through the foundation we were able to provide for families in Pittsburgh and California. It was good to be able to give back to people, see so many kids happy. It's fun to see their reaction to the gifts, the toys, the clothes and know they will have a good Christmas."

Smith-Schuster also had fun meeting families, taking pictures and making gingerbread houses with kids at Twin Rivers Elementary School in McKeesport, Pa.

"As a kid I always wanted to build gingerbread houses, but I was never able to," said Smith-Schuster. "I had the opportunity to do it and I jumped at it. Through their program I was able to meet people and just have fun.

"It's a neighborhood where kids don't have a lot, and to be able to do something special for them was fun. They didn't know it was me coming and they were excited for it."

He capped off his holiday giving back by helping those at the Light of Life Rescue Mission. Smith-Schuster's family took care of spreading the joy there since he wasn't able to attend, but his spirit was there as he shared a video with the group.

"It's near and dear to my heart," said Smith-Schuster. "I was in their shoes one day. I was at the church with my mom trying to get food, trying to get the next meal. They do great work there for so many aspects of the community and I am happy to be able to give back."

* * *

Linebacker T.J. Watt and his finance Dani Rhodes continued their relationship with UPMC Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh this holiday season.

They donated blankets and books to the patients, some who will have to spend Christmas in the hospital.

"I love just trying to brighten kid's days," said Watt. "They are going through so much. The families are going through so much. I might not think I am a special guy to say hello to, but it might be different for kids who are going through their own battles and these families as well. Anything we can do to brighten their day I hope it's a game changer."

Earlier this year Watt and Rhodes delivered limited-edition knit hats to the kids, done in conjunction with New Era Cap Co., Inc., and were able to spend time visiting with the kids. While they weren't able to deliver the blankets and books in person, giving back is what matters most.

"I just really enjoy helping the kids out there," said Watt.

* * *

Linebacker Jacob Tuioti-Mariner has only been in Pittsburgh just over a month, but he is already making his presence known in the community.

Tuioti-Mariner worked with Beyond the Basics to give back to area kids to make the holidays beyond special.

"I'm willing to help anybody that's unfortunate, especially since I was in that situation myself where my parents struggled to provide for my siblings," said Tuioti-Mariner, who was signed to the Steelers practice squad on Nov. 11. "I've been in a situation where my parents did whatever they could to make us happy as kids, and there were seven of us. It was not a lot, but it was something where it opened my eyes. When I was younger, I didn't know that we were struggling because of the love and the nurturing that my parents gave to us. So, I just wanted to replicate that and kind of pattern that my parents were able to do when I was younger.

"When it comes to the holidays it opens my eyes a lot more because of the position I'm in. I just got here in Pittsburgh, but that doesn't take away the fact that there's so many kids in need, so many blessings that others are able to give. I've been raised by parents who told me whenever you're in a position to help to do so, and so here I am offering help."

Tuioti-Mariner spent time on a zoom call with the kids from Turtle Creek Elementary to let them know about the gift, sharing the joy with a very surprised group.

"This is something I always wanted to do," said Tuioti-Mariner.

* * *

Decorating holiday cookies is definitely something kids love to do, but when you do it with Steelers' safety Minkah Fitzpatrick it takes it to a completely different level.

A group of kids through UPMC Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh Family Connection Center had the opportunity to do just that when Fitzpatrick visited them and their families this week.

Fitzpatrick wanted to do something special and fun, for the kids and their families at the holidays and it of course started with the cookies.

"I haven't done it in years," said Fitzpatrick of decorating cookies. "I am excited."

While the cookies were definitely a highlight, it was about a lot more too. Fitzpatrick worked with Giant Eagle to provide gift cards and groceries to the families, giving them something that is a strong need this time of year as they celebrate the holidays together. And he also brought Steelers' teddy bears with him, which brought smiles all around.

"Just spending time with people that you don't know and having fun and sharing the Christmas spirit is really important," said Fitzpatrick. "Being able to spend time with people, I think that's the most valuable thing that we have."

The Family Connection Center works with kids and families to provide multiple services with the goal to help children achieve brighter futures. With the combination of Fitzpatrick and Giant Eagle, the center was able to provide fun for the kids who ranged from 3-5 years old, and also provide much needed benefits at the same time as many families deal with food insecurity.

"We thought how special would it be that Minkah came to do a special event with these little kiddos and really made the holiday special this year, particularly since we didn't get to do anything special last year like this because of COVID," said Jodie Krall, a member of UPMC Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh's Community Health Division.

The center was awash in the holiday spirit, and it was just what was needed for everyone.

"For the kids, this is something that they always love," said Charlotte Byrd, the Senior Manager for UPMC Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh Family Care Connection program. "And for the parents, this is something that they can do and enjoy as well. It's almost like, and I hate to say this, but it's almost like something a little normal, a new normal for our kids so that they can actually see the football player and experience him being here face-to-face and of course being done with the regular COVID-19 protocols that we already follow at our sites."

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