Students help make a difference across City

Junior nursing major Ashley Van Slyke helps with landscaping outside the Oakland Career Center as a part of Pitt Make a Difference Day on Saturday.

Instead of sleeping in, Gabrielle Fortier and about 40 other Pitt students were already up at 10 a.m. last Saturday, ready to volunteer at the Foster Love Project in Dormont.

Fortier, a first-year microbiology and anthropology major, said volunteering at the 12th annual Pitt Make a Difference Day provided an opportunity to help those who may not always have support.

“It’s really great to see everyone in the morning getting their shirts and getting on the buses,” Fortier said.

FLP, which provides clothes and toys at no cost to foster children and their families, is one of more than 90 organizations, across more than 50 City neighborhoods, where teams of students traveled for PMADD. The event, run by the University’s Office of Pitt Serves, is Pitt’s largest day of service, with students racking up more than 20,000 hours of service in one single day by helping with tasks in neighborhood community centers, winterizing community gardens and picking up trash along streets and highways.

One of FLP’s main initiatives is distributing placement bags, which are then provided to foster children who may arrive at a new foster home with little to no clothes or essential items. The organization loads items such as pajamas, socks, underwear, toothbrushes, books and stuffed animals into bags and distributes them to more than 30 agencies throughout Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

FLP is currently gearing up for its annual placement bag drive, which happens every November and December. The student volunteers helped organize FLP’s basement to prepare for the drive — sorting dozens of clothing bins by season, age and gender and moving miscellaneous toys, diapers and other items.

Emily Sullivan, FLP’s donation center supervisor, said FLP relies heavily on volunteers, with a staff of only four people.

“When Pitt Serves comes, I make a long list of things to do, and then within the first 30 minutes, we’re done with the things.” Sullivan said. “It’s amazing. At the end of the day, a ton of stuff has been done that wouldn’t have gotten done otherwise.”

Many of the students who went to FLP on Saturday are already highly involved in service. Two Pitt groups volunteered with FLP — America Reads Challenge, which employs students as tutors to support elementary school students with reading skills, and Foundation for International Medical Relief of Children, which focuses on providing access to medical care for underprivileged and medically underserved families around the world.

Shruti Idnani, a senior neuroscience major and president of Pitt’s FIMRC chapter, said PMADD provides an unmatched opportunity to give back to the Pittsburgh community.

“It’s really cool to see everyone come together and to have a full day blocked off just for volunteering,” Idnani said.

For Manisha Kukkillaya, a senior natural sciences major and vice president of Pitt’s FIMRC chapter, helping others is more than a fun Saturday activity — it is an obligation.

“I think it’s our duty to help,” Kukkillaya said. “Especially here where we’re providing help for children in foster homes.”

Members of America Reads Challenge have made volunteering at FLP a yearly tradition. Corrine Koziel, a junior neuroscience major and volunteer coordinator for the group, said much progress has been made over the past three years.

“When we first came, they didn’t have too much for us to do and now they have all these donated goods and bags,” Koziel said. “It’s great to see these bags actually helping foster kids in their placements.”

Students weren’t the only Pitt community members volunteering at FLP — staff also pitched in. Sarah Popovich, the assistant director for leadership education in Pitt’s Office of Cross Cultural and Leadership Development, said PMADD is important for multiple reasons.

“It allows students to get outside the ‘Oakland bubble’ a little bit, and to learn a little bit more about the neighborhoods that surround Pittsburgh,” Popovich said. “For me, I think of it as a way to get to know my neighbors.”

Popovich added that for her, PMADD is a source of pride.

“It makes me feel really proud to be a part of Pitt because it’s one day that highlights how much of a commitment the University has to service,” Popovich said. “So much of the work that Pitt Serves does throughout the year is highlighted today.”

For some students helping FLP, they said no task is too small for the student volunteers — anything they do is helping to make a difference.

“Even just helping them sort their basement, I know that if it was just them working, it might take them a while,” Koziel said. “It really makes it worthwhile.”

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