By BOB LABRIOLA
Pittsburgh is known as a city that supports its sports teams, and now with the Steelers as the reigning Super Bowl champions and the Penguins as the reigning Stanley Cup champions it once again can stake a claim to being the City of Champions.
Maybe not as well-known about Pittsburgh, though, is its willingness to come together to help those of its residents who need it. And that very trait was celebrated on Thursday at the Omni William Penn during a luncheon honoring individuals and corporations for their work during the 2008 United Way of Allegheny County Campaign.
Despite being in the midst of one of the most significant economic downturns in United States history, $31,231,711 was raised during the 2008 campaign, an increase of one percent over the 2007 total. In a difficult year when non-profits are seeing decreases in donations, the United Way's campaign total supported the theme of the luncheon: "When times are tough, Pittsburghers step up."
Steelers President Art Rooney II, who is serving as the United Way Board Chairman, praised Dr. Ken Melani, the 2008 Campaign Chair, for that total.
"You don't need us to stand up here and tell you that times are tough," said Rooney. "There's no doubt that these past months have been particularly challenging for our country, for our commonwealth – and for our neighbors here in Allegheny County."
And then Rooney and United Way President Bob Nelkin applied some specific numbers to that statement.
There has been a 141 percent increase in calls to the United Way HelpLine from local families needing assistance with household bills; 321,429 people have turned to the United Way agencies for basics such as food and clothing; and $786,000 has been distributed through Neighbor-Aid to people facing extreme hardship.
"This year our campaign was up almost one percent, whereas other United Way chapters and non-profits across the country are experiencing losses in donations," said Nelkin. "This is a considerable achievement, and it's a tribute to Pittsburghers that they are so caring and generous when neighbors are in great need."
Events of this nature typically focus on those who make the financial donations, and while those individuals and corporations received kudos, some time also was spent detailing some of the work done by individuals – to use a football analogy – working in the trenches.
Reggie Smith and Antoine Bailey are two of those currently in the trenches, and they conducted a panel discussion with Nelkin during the luncheon to explain how they are attempting to impact young people in this area.
Bailey explained how he once would have been characterized as an at-risk youth, but the efforts of Smith to mentor him and get him on the right path changed his life. As a result, Bailey took up the cause and is trying to do for others what Smith once did for him.
Smith and Bailey talked about a program that began four summers ago and was spurred by the escalating violence between young people in the St. Clair and Beltzhoover neighborhoods. It involved getting summer jobs for kids from both neighborhoods, and while they were working at these jobs Smith and Bailey worked on them. As Bailey said, "This program can be the first chance have had to be with a positive influence."
From those two neighborhoods, the program has grown to include 28 neighborhoods today, all in an effort to get the feuding down and the shooting to stop. "Guys were shooting each other over nothing," said Smith. "Over nothing except, 'We don't like kids from another neighborhood."
Most recently, Smith and Bailey talked about their role in mediating the neighborhood rivalry that exploded in a fight in the halls of Allderdice High School recently between students from the East Hills and Hazelwood neighborhoods. After that one fight, there were no more incidents through the rest of the school year, and for helping to bring peace there, as well as for their continuing efforts all over the region, Nelkin called Smith and Bailey "heroes in the community."
Also, the United Way recognized the 29 businesses, including the Pittsburgh Steelers, in its Hall of Fame, as well as the year's top 11 companies that increased their employee participation and level of giving the most.
Included in this group were: US Bank, Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield, Eaton Corporation, Curtiss-Wright Electro-Mechanical Corporation, Allegheny HeathChoices, Inc., Northwestern Mutual Financial Network, Thorp Reed & Armstrong, Hefren Tillotson, Duquesne University, Federal Reserve Bank of Pittsburgh and Development Dimensions International.
"It's been an honor to serve as campaign chair," said Melani, the CEO of Highmark. "This was truly a success. Given the state of the economy, the increased donations by Pittsburgh residents is a testament to how committed they are to making our community safer and stronger. I'm proud to represent the hundreds of local corporations and their dedicated employees who helped us surpass our 2007 campaign total."
Added Rooney, "Thank you to the citizens of Pittsburgh for helping to make the lives of all of the people in our community a little easier during these difficult times. People are struggling to make ends meet, and many are even on the verge of losing their homes or scrambling to put food on the table. Thanks to the generosity of people who gave to the United Way, we're going to be able to help tens of thousands of people throughout Pittsburgh."