Spreading joy during the holidays

It's a time of year for giving back, for spreading joy and helping others. And when it comes to giving back, current and former Steelers players understand the importance of it. That is why many of them have been doing their part this holiday season to make sure that Christmas is merry and bright for those in need.

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What do you get when you mix a roomful of kids with a cotton candy machine and a bounce house?

You get a night filled with fun and energy.

That was the case when Steven Nelson and Nick Vannett spent time at the Jeron X. Grayson Community Center for their Angel Tree event.

But it was about more than just fun and energy. It was about giving back.

Both players wanted to do something in the Pittsburgh community to help those most vulnerable…kids. And the first step they took was making donations to provide coats for kids in Pittsburgh's Hill District neighborhood in conjunction with the Macedonia Church of Pittsburgh.

"It's special to give back to those less fortunate," said Nelson, who did a coat drive while he played for the Kansas City Chiefs and wanted to provide those in Pittsburgh the same thing. "I am happy to be in a position to give back because I was there at one point. I think everybody deserves to have a great coat, whether you have the means to or not. You deserve to have it, especially with the conditions here in Pittsburgh.

"This is part of giving back, spending time with the kids, connecting with them, being in the moment with them and letting them know how you feel about them."

The coats were delivered to the school students earlier in the day, and then the evening was about spending time with them in a fun, uplifting manner.

"I think it goes beyond winter coats," said Vannett. "Some of these kids come from less fortunate situations. When guys like Steve and I come through to help out any way we can, whether it's coats, hanging out and playing with them, they take a lot away from that, as well as we do. It's just a good thing for all of us involved in this. I am happy to be a part of this, happy to give back.

"I remember when I was in their shoes when I was little. When I was around a professional athlete, I was starstruck. It's awesome to be in the position I am in and be able to give back because I knew how I felt. I am sure they are going to get a lot of this and remember it for a while. I want to make it memorable for everyone."

Over 750 coats were provided to youth in the Hill District, assuring that they won't be cold as temperatures continue to drop.

"We want to make sure every child has a coat in our community," said Rev. Mark Tookes, Executive Pastor Macedonia Church of Pittsburgh. "If they have to walk to school, or are outside playing, our goal is to make sure they have something warm to handle the weather. We want every kid in the Hill to have coats."

In addition to providing the coats, the players were thrilled to take part in the Angel Tree event, which aids children who have a parent who is incarcerated. In addition to the fun and games, Nelson and Vannett helped to distribute gifts to the kids.

"It means a lot for our community, trying to get role models, and really trying to provide some kind of example to let them know the church and their community cares about them, to let them know they are loved and people care about them," said Rev. Tookes. "Just to see a smile on a child's face takes you back to when you are little. The goal is to take that love and pour it into the community."

The smiles were plentiful, that is for sure, and it was the perfect way to spread holiday cheer.

"Tis the season. It's all about giving, all about being selfless," said Vannett. "It shows the character the Steelers have in general. Any way we can show that. The community has our backs, we have their backs as well. It's a good way to bring the community together."

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The smile on JuJu Smith-Schuster's face as he filled a shopping cart with toys was probably as big as the smile on the faces of the kids who later received those toys as an early Christmas gift.

Smith-Schuster decided he wanted to do something for kids who are sometimes forgotten this time of year, so he shopped until he dropped for toys and then went out and played Santa, delivering them to four local organizations.

"I wanted to do something for kids at Christmas that might not have toys, do something to make them smile," said Smith-Schuster. "I know what it was like growing up, not having things that I wanted, so I just went out and bought toys.

"That was really fun, going out and getting a shopping cart and just getting things. I didn't worry about the price of everything because it was for the kids. It's about making kids happy and just giving back for those who might not have the best experience at Christmas."

Smith-Schuster made his way around the city, stopping first at the August Wilson Center where they were hosting their Community Day.

"It was great there," said Smith-Schuster. "Santa was there, and it was really nice. There were little kids there not expecting to get gifts and they did so it was fun."

The other stops included UPMC Children's Hospital, The Children's Home of Pittsburgh and the Hill District YMCA.

"There was a lot of excitement," said Smith-Schuster. "It was really nice, a lot of fun. They weren't expecting it. It's just an out of the blue kind of thing. I enjoyed it and so did the kids.

"For Christmas, everyone deserves a present. The best thing about it was giving back to the kids, to the community."

It's a time of year when paying the bills is tough. When finding the best way to balance the necessities in life with wanting to bring joy to your family on Christmas morning can be a challenge.

That is why rookie Ulysees Gilbert wanted to do his part to help.

Gilbert got involved with Pay Away the Layaway, a non-profit that teams with individuals to help pay layaway debts for families in need.

Gilbert donated $3,500 and paid off layaways at Burlington Coat Factory for families in his hometown of Ocala, Florida.

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"I have the resources now," said Gilbert. "I always wanted to give back to the city that raised me and showed me so much support throughout the process, throughout college. I just love giving. I have always had that passion, when I was younger, in college. Now to have the opportunity to do things in a bigger way, I want to do them."

Gilbert said he understands what families are going through and anything he can do to help he is more than willing.

"I feel like around this time things get very stressful for families," said Gilbert. "I want one less stress for the families to think about and kids to have toys and clothes for the holiday season.

"It feels amazing. I am blessed to have this opportunity to be in a spot to do this. It's great to see the smiles on people's faces, to know they have things for the kids and themselves and one less thing to worry about on Christmas Day. Christmas is one of those days you should enjoy your family, have a lot of love and laughter and nothing to stress about. I don't want people to have to get up the next day and worry about paying it off."

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Will Gay looked around the room, filled with women and children enjoying a holiday dinner he provided, smiling despite their circumstances. And what he saw was a little bit of him.

Gay, more than anyone, understands what those at the Women's Center and Shelter of Pittsburgh, a shelter that serves women and children affected by the horror that is domestic violence, are going through.

Gay experienced the pain domestic violence brings when he was just eight years old and his mother, Carolyn Hall, tried to escape an abusive relationship she was in with his stepfather. When she tried to leave the relationship, his stepfather shot and killed her and then shot himself.

"It was exciting to go there and see the new building," said Gay. "For them to open their arms up and want me to still be involved with them like I was when I was a player, it was special. The smiles you see during the holiday, it's encouraging for my life and for the families that are there."

Spending time with the women is something Gay truly enjoys. He wants to provide hope to them, wants to give them positive reinforcement and let them know they made the right choice by getting away from the abusive relationship they were in.

"Not only are they helping me, I hope I am helping them. A lot of time they just want to talk football, what we are going to do on Sunday. It's fun. It takes their mind off the pain they are going through, lets them know there is a brighter side, life is still fun and they are in a safe environment.

"It's a good way to get out of a situation. They are heroes. I call them heroes. My mom wasn't able to get out of her situation. To talk to the ladies is encouraging and keeps me going."

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Jerome Bettis hasn't played football in Pittsburgh since the 2005 season, but it's a place that still holds a special place in his heart and that is why he will never stop giving back to the community.

And this time of year, there is nothing he enjoys more than spreading holiday cheer.

"Pittsburgh will always be home," said Bettis. "I was very fortunate and blessed to be traded to Pittsburgh. The community of Pittsburgh really took me in and made me their own. In turn I have made Pittsburgh my home. It's a love-love relationship. No question about it."

Bettis, through his 'Bus Stops Here Foundation,' hosted his annual toy delivery, taking a bus, of course to different locations in the Pittsburgh area to drop off toys for those in need.

"It's the right thing to do," said Bettis. "Whenever you have people, especially children, in need of smiles this is the least that you can do. I want to do as much as I can to support the community that gives me so much."

Bettis helped to load the bus with the toys and then handed them out to kids who were nothing but smiles, as well as helped organizations that will provide them to the kids they serve. Among those who received toys were the Best of the Batch Foundation and Boys & Girls Club.

"You see the genuine happiness. That is what it is all about," said Bettis. "It's about trying to preserve a kid's childhood. That is what it is all about. When I was a kid, I was fortunate to get presents and it was a very festive and great time. I want to extend that to kids in the Pittsburgh community."

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When Will Allen played for the Steelers, he focused on giving back to the community where he received a lot of support.

Now that his playing days are over, and he has remained in Pittsburgh, that passion for giving back hasn't changed.

Allen hosted the 7th Annual Will Allen Foundation "Holiday Giving Program." Allen hosted kids from the Boys & Girls Club on a holiday shopping spree not just for themselves, but for their families as well.

"It's amazing," said Allen. "We get a ton of support from not only fans, but people who care about the community who live in Pittsburgh and outside Pittsburgh. They care about the work we do and the impact we have all year and at the holidays. It means a lot to me that the community comes together under a noble cause, and that is helping families not only have a better Christmas holiday, but help families who have a huge financial burden and help reduce the compounding issues that come with it."

The premise is for the kids to all pick out something for themselves, something they can enjoy, but also something for their siblings, parents, grandparents and the like, teaching them a valuable lesson.

The event has grown through the years, with more kids and families benefiting from Allen's huge heart.

"When you first start off anything it's like a pilot to see if you can do it," said Allen. "Every year I said we are going to double it. Then we got to 60 kids and they shop for up to five family members, so when you see the magnitude of how many people are impacted, it's special. We just wanted to keep helping more people and being a beacon of hope for families who are struggling."

Allen isn't just thankful for the support he receives from the community via donations, but he also is thankful for the volunteers who come out the night of the event to help with the event, including students from Perry Traditional Academy and North Hills High School who are part of Allen's Quest for Real Life Success program, who each teamed up with a child for the shopping adventure.

"We have kids from Perry who come, and even though they are in a lower income neighborhood they still come out and support kids in similar socioeconomic status, and we have kids from North Hills who come out and help," said Allen. "We have other volunteers who come out. But it goes great. The special part is having our high school students come and be leaders and show the younger students they too can give back."

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While everyone in Pittsburgh knows him as Charlie Batch, a more appropriate name this time of year for the former Steelers quarterback would be Santa Claus.

Batch is once again playing the role of the man in the red suit for families in the Pittsburgh area through the Best of the Batch Foundation.

For the past month Batch has been collecting toys for kids, and recently held a 'wrapping party,' getting all of the gifts ready for Christmas Eve, when Batch's (or Santa's) sleigh takes flight.

"It's amazing," said Batch. "When we first started this, we didn't know where it was going to go. You get to that point and you are in awe. People have a lot of options of where they could choose to have their donations go. When they believe in what we are doing, you say wow. We show people where they are going. They know when they drop off toys it helps increase the families we can support.

"And to get the help we get. Everybody can volunteer in different ways, but when you have people giving their time, it's special. It's a way for them to give back and it's huge for our organization because we need the manpower to wrap all the gifts."

This year Batch and his wife Tasha will deliver toys, a full Christmas dinner and household goods to a record 150 families they have adopted, all recommended by area organizations or guidance counselors at schools.

They will personally deliver them on Christmas Eve, starting at 9 a.m. and going strong until the sleigh is empty.

"When we knock on the door and they see me, they are like wow we didn't expect it to be you at the door," said Batch. "They take pictures, but we don't want to invade on their space at that time. We wrap gifts, give a household item and Christmas dinner, a turkey or ham. Now they can open presents and eat dinner together."

Steelers players and alumni give back to the Pittsburgh community around the Holidays

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