With the Pittsburgh region re-opened for the most part following closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the perception among many is that things are returning to normal and those who lost their jobs during this tough time are back to work.
But, as we all know, perception is a far cry from reality.
While some things have come back, and some jobs that were lost have returned, there are many people still suffering financially due to the pandemic, with many jobs sadly never returning.
Families have suffered, individuals have suffered, and the region in general has suffered. And when there is suffering in the Pittsburgh area, the community steps up.
That is exactly what the Steelers organization has done throughout the last few months, and that continued this week when the Steelers teamed with Convoy of Hope to provide basic necessities for families in Allegheny, Butler and Westmoreland County.
Ben Roethlisberger and his wife, Ashley, and Vance McDonald and his wife, Kendi, worked with the Steelers organization to spearhead a distribution through Convoy of Hope, a faith-based organization that's main passion is to feed the world through 'children's feeding initiatives, community outreach and disaster response.' The organization worked directly with the United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania, who are distributing the items to agencies they work with throughout the region.
"There has always been a need to reach out and help," said Ashley Roethlisberger. "There have always been people who are struggling and in need of food and especially during these times, people who have normally been okay have found themselves in difficult situations. It was a blessing that the people in Pittsburgh have focused on what the needs in the city are and how we can meet them. We're thankful for Convoy of Hope because that is their mission, to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. We're just happy to be able to partner with them to feed families in need, the people who wouldn't normally go to food banks or have those same connections can still go to these distributions and be fed through alternative ways. We are just happy to be able to help do that."
The Steelers partnered with Convoy of Hope to give local charities food to deliver to those in need
The United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania has seen a 131% increase in calls to their 2-1-1 help line, something that quickly signifies how desperate the need for help is.
"We're seeing an unprecedented level of people needing access to emergency basic needs, to which really boils down to food," said Wendy Koch, director of volunteer engagement for the United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania. "We have done numerous surveys of our agency partners throughout this, and now we are seeing results that agencies know their constituents and the people they help need food and those missing cleaning supplies. And we got some cleaning supplies on this truck from Convoy of Hope, which is such a necessity we are lucky to get our hands on. The fact that we got bleach and cleaner to provide to them to help them stay safe in their own homes is fantastic. The other thing that is fantastic, is instead of it being a drive-up distribution, we had the agencies come to Heinz Field. With many of the drive-up distributions it eliminates the opportunity for people who don't have cars to get these supplies. Going through the agency partners they get it to the people who need it the most.
"The United Way is focused for the next 12-18 months on supporting partners, and working with partners, to make sure they have access for food, medicine and cleaning supplies."
One of the most touching things for everyone involved is that many of the people who are in need of the donations are people who are new to organizations such as the United Way and food banks. They haven't been forced to deal with asking for help before, and doing it now isn't easy and many don't want to reach out.
"Not only is this a great opportunity to continue to bridge the relationship between Convoy and the Steelers, but it's a great opportunity to help so many in need," said Vance McDonald. "There is that little bit of pride that people have, the thought that you have to rely on someone to help you get through a crisis like this. Being able to have that link to the Steelers, the hometown team, makes it a little easier and more personal. It opens that door. You don't have the same barrier or wall of pride. Hopefully it will encourage people to come out and get what they need."
And the need is spread throughout the entire community. It's not just one neighborhood or another where there is a need, it's everywhere, from the city to the suburbs.
"It's just humbling because some people may not want to ask for help, but you want to be sure and extend that hope and assistance to everybody, whether they are showing up at the food bank and asking for it or not," said Kendi McDonald. "It's scary times for everybody. The uncertainty and constant feeling of what is going to happen next, is it going to get better, are jobs going to come back. Convoy of Hope is extending that hope. We are not sure what tomorrow is going to be, but here is hope for this week, this month. There is still hope going on and God is still with us in the midst of this uncertainty."
The Roethlisbergers and McDonalds were joined by other volunteers, including Steelers staff, to unload the Convoy of Hope delivery truck, and then pack the items for the United Way to pick up for distribution.
"We have always had a heart for helping people, but sometimes the hardest part is knowing how to help," said Ashley Roethlisberger. "Ben and I really want to help in practical ways. Sometimes it's hard to identify practical ways to help. This has been eye-opening to tangible needs of the communities throughout Pittsburgh. Seeing the problems, attaching numbers to the problem, and being able to directly solve the problem and network and connect people to solve the problem is fulfilling to us, knowing we can work together to make a difference and improve the lives of people during this difficult time.
"It's fun to serve in a group, have a common goal, common passion. The Steelers, led by the Rooneys, have been an incredible example of that. The wives have done a great job of reaching out and coming up with creative ways we can give back to the community. It's fun to come together and do it as a group."
Among the United Way organizations that will benefit in Allegheny County are the Bible Center Church, Boys & Girls Club of Western Pennsylvania, Center of Life, His Place, Hosanna House, Neighborhood Learning Alliance, Rankin Christian Center, Sarah Heinz House, Schenley Heights YDC, in Butler County the Community Care Connections and in Westmoreland County Valley Points YMCA and Westmoreland Community Action.
"The relationship the United Way has with the Steelers is truly invaluable," said Koch. "We have seen over the past several years alone with bringing in agency partners with Convoy, with Huddle for 100, the literacy kits, the social justice donations, that the players, coaches, staff and organization have made it's hard to speak to the value of that. It's so important to us.
"We Pittsburghers are so proud and want to jump in and help. We have had more families want to jump in and help during this time than we normally do. It's great to see the Pittsburgh families rally to help each other."
The relationship with Convoy of Hope and the Steelers isn't something new. During the 2019 season, McDonald hosted Huddle for the Holidays through Convoy of Hope, an organization he has a long relationship with, bringing not just joy but much-needed items to families at a critical time. The goal was to continue the relationship, and once again they are bringing relief during a critical time.
"We always look forward to giving back through our platform," said McDonald. "This goes to foundational stuff when I entered the league. We were told you are a role model whether you like it or not. Regardless of the size of your stage, everyone in the NFL has a stage. Your destiny is in your own hands, what are you going to do with it?"
The plan now is to continue to work hand-in-hand with Convoy of Hope over the next few months. Donations are being planned for the New Castle and Latrobe areas, with more still to be added to the calendar.
"At the end of the day the message is hope," said Vance McDonald. "To have everyone come together I hope will bring more families to a place where needs are being met. I love the fuel we are running with right now with the Steelers, the enthusiasm we have. You still have a blanket of uncertainty about how long this is going to keep going on.
"The question is how much more will we need, how much more will the demand increase? It's interesting. As a society we are rocking, and everyone is on social media and it's rainbows and sunshine. Then a giant pandemic comes out of left field and it humbles people. It makes you step back and say this is a rough spot I am in here. Being able to rely and have people out there doing a lot of good things. Whenever you have the opportunity to give hope, it's great to have that balance. A lot of times we are focusing on ourselves or the bad things happening in the world, the negative connotations coming with it. It's nice to have a spotlight of hope in a city we are planning on raising our families in. It's awesome to be at the pinnacle of that connection. I am glad the Steelers are running with it."