Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh

Vagabonds Vince, Tiana & Lauren

Missionaries trusting in God

Pittsburgh’s Allentown neighborhood lost most of its Catholic population in recent decades. Young urban missionaries see that as an opportunity for outreach.

“I think the Lord has called us here and I’m confident he has great plans for us,” said Tiana DeLorge, 24, leader of a Vagabond Missions team that is beginning its ministry in Allentown. “People have been very welcoming and they’re glad to have us here.”

Vagabond Missions works to break the cycle of hopelessness in the inner city, reaching out to youth exposed to drugs and violence and bringing them to Jesus. They have had success in Pittsburgh’s Garfield, Bloomfield and Friendship neighborhoods, and in Sharpsburg. Next year they plan to expand into the Hill District.

Sacrificial gifts to Our Campaign for The Church Alive! helped provide start-up grants for the ministry.

Meeting teens on basketball courts, in parks and at school, missionaries mentor them and teach the faith, holding worship nights and Bible studies and going on retreats and mission trips. In August, they took 30 local kids to a summer adventure camp in Columbus, OH.

Some young people are attending church regularly for the first time in their lives.

“I’m excited to be in Allentown,” said missionary Lauren O’Brien, 22. “This is an opportunity to trust in God.”

The community is trying to stage a comeback after Allentown’s population plunged 70 percent in the decades following World War II, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Gun violence and poverty are higher than the citywide average. The last Catholic church in the area closed three years ago.

Senior missionary Vince Petitjean, 22, understands the challenges ahead.

“People have had to build walls (metaphorically),” he said. “We want to build relationships, slowly see those walls come down, and hope they let us into their hearts and lives.”

The Vagabond missionaries are getting a big assist from board member and real estate developer Joe Calloway, who grew up in neighboring Knoxville. He’s providing free housing to the missionaries and space in a former funeral home on East Warrington Avenue for their Urban Underground youth center.

“After seeing the love and care the Vagabond missionaries bring to other neighborhoods like Garfield, I am confident they will make a difference in the lives of young people in Allentown,” Calloway said.

St. John Vianney Parish, formed in 1994 through the merger of St. George, St. Joseph, St. Canice and St. Henry parishes, closed in 2016 after a 77 percent decline in membership in a decade. Some of the parish territory became part of St. Mary of the Mount Parish in Mount Washington, where Father Michael Stumpf is looking forward to the missionaries and teens joining them at Mass.

“We’re excited for their ministry and believe it will be a great relationship with our parish,” he said.

With the expansion into Allentown, Vagabond Missions now has 10 missionaries serving locally, according to Shannon Keating, Pittsburgh area director. They also have mission sites in Steubenville, OH, Greenville, NC, and Wichita, KS.

“We have opportunities to serve directly with teens, whether as volunteers or providing meals and financial support,” Keating said. “People can also get involved by becoming part of our local advising committee, through prayer support, or considering service as a missionary.”

Calloway echoed Keating’s invitation.

“People should donate their time in any way possible,” he said. “Jesus was out on the streets caring for and loving people who were most in need. We should follow his lead.” To learn more, visit VagabondMissions.com or e-mail shannon@vagabondmissions.com.

Vagabonds Vince, Tiana & Lauren
Left to right, missionaries Vince Petitjean, Tiana DeLorge and Lauren O’Brien.

Leavened Bread

Spiritual awakening program expanding to schools

As a cradle Catholic, Mike Sealy thought he understood what it meant to have a personal relationship with Jesus. That was before ChristLife came to his parish.

“It was a life changing experience,” said Sealy, who helped to lead the evangelization program at Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Hopewell Township, Beaver County. “I always got the Catholic faith intellectually but it wasn’t in my heart. I learned how to make myself available to Jesus through prayer.”

Thanks to a new grant funded by sacrificial gifts to Our Campaign for The Church Alive!, more lay leaders like Sealy will have the opportunity for such spiritual awakening experiences to help them grow in the faith and lead others to Jesus.

Programs also will be available for the first time in area Catholic schools and colleges.

Called “The Leaven Initiative,” the effort will complete the work of the diocese’s School of Missionary Discipleship, an intensive process of spiritual and intellectual formation, consultation and training in evangelization.

“The Leaven Initiative was named after the parable of the leavened bread in Matthew 13:33, where Jesus shows how the few can effect change in the whole,” said Judene Indovina, diocesan director of Catholic Identity. “By training small teams of lay people eager to bring others to Christ, we hope to create an awakening of faith and conversion in the entire diocese.”

The program will establish regional training centers and discipleship teams for parishes and schools, supporting the ministry of clergy in building vibrant faith communities. The goal is for the centers to become self-sustaining after three years.

Such training in faith formation and evangelization is urgently needed. The Pew Research Center found that 52 percent of those raised Catholic leave the church as adults. Among millennials, 80 percent stop practicing the faith.

Even more telling, only about 5 percent of Catholics who regularly attend Mass are considered to be evangelizing disciples, according to research done by evangelization expert Sherry Weddell.

The initiative will provide direct service and training to principals, teachers, campus ministers, directors of formation, catechists and parents.

“Taking this to schools and colleges is a wonderful idea,” said Rita Morasco, who helped introduce ChristLife to St. Teresa of Avila Parish in Ross, and then to neighboring parishes. “Young people are often so busy that they don’t make time for God and talk about what’s really important—salvation.”

ChristLife has three cycles, each lasting seven weeks. The first part, Discovering Christ, encourages people to enter into or renew a personal relationship with Jesus. The second sequence, Following Christ, helps to strengthen their relationship with Him. The third series, Sharing Christ, equips them to tell others about Jesus.

A similar program, Alpha, is offered in one, 11-week series.

ChristLife will be held this fall in the parish grouping of St. Benedict the Abbot in Peters Township, St. Francis of Assisi in Finleyville and St. Isaac Jogues in Jefferson Hills. This will be the fourth time the program has been offered at St. Benedict the Abbot and second time at St. Francis of Assisi.

“Participants talk about it in the community,” said Father Bob Miller, administrator of the parishes. “As they gain confidence to talk about their faith, they can attract other people who are looking for meaning in their life.”

St. Gabriel of the Sorrowful Virgin Parish in Whitehall offered ChristLife four times, according to leader Jim Zern. Alpha is being presented now to all four parishes in their grouping.

“I realized I had never had a relationship with Jesus because I was always pushing him away,” Zern said. “I was afraid of showing my faith, but as a result of the ChristLife program I realized I was being called to be a disciple of Jesus and not be afraid to be who I truly was.”

Sealy is grateful for his new, deeper bond with Christ.

“Once you have that relationship with Jesus, you have a much better sense of your place in the world,” he said.

Grant aids parish youth ministry

Amanda Filotei, 16, admitted that her life had gotten too busy. She didn’t always make time for God. Joining a new youth group helped to get her priorities straight.

“I’ve learned that no matter what, God is always there for you,” she said. “I’m looking forward to growing closer to Him so I don’t stray again.”

Amanda and her twin sister Emily from St. Angela Merici Parish are among more than 50 teens taking part in a revitalized youth ministry program in the McKeesport area which includes the parishes of Corpus Christi, St. Patrick and St. Robert Bellarmine.

Sacrificial gifts to Our Campaign for The Church Alive! helped to fund a grant for the ministry.

“Youth group has been an eye-opening experience,” said Emily Filotei, who, like her sister, is a junior at McKeesport High School. “There are so many other kids just like me who want to strengthen their faith.”

Youth minister Emily Belchick, volunteers and the clergy team join youngsters in games, faith discussions and prayer.

“If we bring the young people together, everyone else will follow,” Belchick said. “They’re making new friends and their parents are starting to get to know one another.”

The teens take part in three week sessions at each of the parishes. They’ve played glow-in-the-dark dodge ball, tossed pancakes, and learned line dancing. Most importantly, they are deepening their faith.

“I have a relationship with Jesus that is growing,” said Dominic Oto, 17, a member of St. Robert Bellarmine Parish and a junior at East Allegheny Junior/Senior High School. “I want to live in God’s grace all the time.”

“It’s so critical to get our youth fired up about Jesus and the church,” said Father Terry O’Connor, administrator of the parishes. “We have to be able to reach them where they’re at and give them what their heart is seeking—a relationship with Jesus.”

Volunteers Jon Bach, 25, and Ben Siroky, 29, are helping to make disciples.

“They see me as someone who can relate well to them,” said Siroky, a member of St. Angela Merici Parish. “A few kids are starting to bring friends from other denominations, so they’re also evangelizing.”

“They are helping me to grow in my faith,” said Bach, who appreciated the discipleship training he received through the diocese’s On Fire! spiritual formation program, also funded through the Church Alive campaign.

Father Joe Beck, the parish chaplain, said he found the youth group’s interactive Stations of the Cross held at St. Angela Merici to be a prayerful, moving experience.

“We have to seek new ways to reach young people,” Father Beck said. “We’re making a start.”

Belchick is looking to recruit “prayer warriors” to support the youth.  Father O’Connor is planning to revamp the parishes’ faith formation programs, offering family catechesis in the younger grades.

“It’s great to see the kids at church,” Father O’Connor said. “They’re excited about coming to youth group, and finding peace, hope and mission in their lives.”

McKeesport-youth-group
Father Terry O’Connor, right, shows some dance moves to volunteer Jon Bach (gray shirt) during a recent youth group gathering at St. Patrick Parish in McKeesport.

Young people key to Duquesne’s renewal

Father Tom Lewandowski remembers growing up in Duquesne when the sprawling steel mill employed thousands, pews were packed every Sunday in the city’s four Catholic churches and students filled three Catholic schools.

Today, U.S. Steel’s Duquesne Works is long gone, shuttered in 1984 and later torn down. The Catholic schools closed, and Duquesne’s parishes are now joined with two neighboring churches in West Mifflin. But as parish administrator, Father Lewandowski has high hopes for a spiritual renewal.

The volunteer board of Our Campaign for The Church Alive, Inc. is helping with a grant to support youth ministry and religious education at St. Joseph Parish and Christ the Light of the World Parish’s two sites in Duquesne, and St. Agnes and Holy Trinity parishes in West Mifflin. Holy Trinity moved from Duquesne in 1969, building a new church in West Mifflin.

The funding comes from the diocesan case component “Grants to Parishes in Need,” meant to “help our sisters and brothers in parishes that are struggling in those areas of our diocese where the church must remain present.”

“These churches are still important—a sign of life and vibrancy,” Father Lewandowski said. “They represent a spirit of hope.”

Youth minister Joann Giuffre is bringing together teens from all four parishes, building a core group of junior high students. She’s created a youth ministry center in the church hall at St. Hedwig, part of Christ the Light of the World Parish. Plans are taking shape for retreats, mission trips, youth conferences and service projects, as well as fun activities, making friends with one another and with Jesus.

“We must be welcoming to the youth and let them be a voice in the church,” she said. “Invite them to serve on the pastoral council, during at Mass as lectors and ushers, and to join prayer groups.”

The needs in Duquesne are significant. After peaking in the 1930s, the city’s population fell steadily as the mill downsized, then dropped 24 percent between 2000-10. More than a third of Duquesne’s 5,600 residents live below the poverty line.

Designated by the state in 1991 as a financially distressed municipality, the city’s public school district also is troubled, with the high school closing a dozen years ago. Students now attend West Mifflin Area High School or East Allegheny High.

About 100 young people attend CCD classes at Holy Name church in Christ the Light of the World Parish. Director of Religious Education Donna Lew-Buechel hopes to get more parents participating.

“We’re planning on starting a family catechesis program in the fall,” she said. “We want the kids to learn how to live their faith and incorporate it into their everyday life.”

All parishioners have an opportunity to get more involved. At Masses last weekend, Father Lewandowski asked everyone to fill out a ministry sign-up form, as 14 ministries in the four parishes are unified.

“I invite you to open your heart to the Holy Spirit,” he said.

Father Lewandowski also expressed appreciation to donors who offered sacrificial gifts to the campaign.

“You are investing in building the faith and a relationship with Jesus Christ in the hearts of youth,” he said. “I’m very grateful for the help to empower our youth and their families.”

Christ Light World YM Hayride

Young people from Christ the Light of the World Parish enjoy a “Haunted Hayride” last fall at Camp Guyasuta in Sharpsburg.

Calling forth new leaders

Megan Basch never imagined she would lead a new kind of ministry that is helping younger Catholics like herself come alive in their faith.

But when she learned a few years ago that a young adult group was forming at St. Paul Cathedral, she says the Holy Spirit inspired her to get involved.

Today, Basch leads the core team for Oakland Young Adult Ministry, with more than 40 members taking part in Bible studies, prayer groups, retreats, liturgical ministries, Theology on Tap, service projects and social outings.

Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman Alejandro Villanueva speaks about his personal faith in 2017 at Theology on Tap in Pittsburgh’s Shadyside neighborhood.

Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman Alejandro Villanueva speaks about his personal faith in 2017 at Theology on Tap in Pittsburgh’s Shadyside neighborhood.

“This ministry has helped me to grow tremendously in my own faith,” said Basch, 31, a cardiology research nurse. “It means friendship and love and community and peace.”

She credits Father Kris Stubna and Father Adam Verona with establishing the group and helping it to thrive.

To develop more lay leaders like Basch throughout the six-county region, the Diocese of Pittsburgh is launching a young adult ministry training program that is supported by sacrificial gifts from donors to Our Campaign for The Church Alive!

The collaborative program, called Cultivate, will provide leaders with the knowledge and skills to implement young adult ministry in their parishes or region, according to Jacob Williamson, diocesan director for young adult outreach.

There are more than 530,000 adults in their 20s and 30s in southwestern Pennsylvania and about 125,000 are Catholic, Williamson said.  Diocesan surveys of older parishioners showed their top concern is helping young people grow in the faith.

“We want to raise up leaders who will help make disciples,” Williamson said. “Young adults are looking for something deeper. A life of meaning—a life with Christ.”

The Cultivate program begins with a weekend retreat on January 4-6, 2019, followed by six monthly sessions that include ministry strategies, developmental growth of a disciple and social media outreach.

“It’s important to understand the needs of young people,” Williamson said. “They can be single or married. Some are parents. They work in white collar jobs, the trades or are in graduate school.

“This collaborative will give leaders important tools for ministry and the theology behind it to serve diverse groups,” he said.

In the past, many younger Catholics drifted away from the church during their high school and college years but returned to the faith when they married and started families. That is not always the case today.

A 2016 Gallup report entitled “How Millennials Want to Work and Live” found young adults are less attached to religious affiliations, but are optimistic and want a purpose in life.

Joni Mulvaney, coordinator of youth and young adult ministry at Holy Sepulcher Parish in Glade Mills, Butler County, said she looks for ways to connect and build relationships through spiritual and social encounters like Mass & Apps, which includes an evening liturgy and appetizers at a local restaurant.

“You have to get to know them and walk with them as a friend,” she said.

“We’ve had some cool conversations about how they’ve encountered God and seen Him at work in their lives,” Mulvaney said. “This is a vital ministry.”

“We meet people where they’re at in their spiritual growth,” Basch said. “It’s an important community of support and friendship.”

To learn more about young adult ministry and Cultivate, visit https://diopitt.org/yam.

Joe Calloway is working to rebuild the Pittsburgh neighborhood where he grew up - Photo courtesy of RE 360 Real Estate

‘We can’t forget that the Church is the people’

Joe Calloway has been working for years to rebuild his old neighborhood. Now he’s excited to help rebuild lives through an inner city ministry that’s bringing young people to Jesus.

The real estate developer is helping Dirty Vagabond Ministries expand into Pittsburgh’s Allentown section next summer. In 2020, urban missionaries will begin outreach in the city’s Hill District.

Sacrificial gifts to Our Campaign for The Church Alive! help provide new start-up grants for the ministry, which embraces Pope Francis’ preference for “a church that is dirty because it’s been on the streets.” The “vagabond” reference is tied to Jesus, who lived as a wandering preacher during his public ministry, and to his followers who journey as vagabonds to their true home, heaven.

“I like their approach to becoming part of the community,” Calloway said. “The kids need someone to care about them and love them.”

The missionaries have been reaching out to youth exposed to violence and drugs in Pittsburgh’s Garfield, Bloomfield and Friendship neighborhoods, and in Sharpsburg.

The missionaries help embody Bishop David Zubik’s call to be On Mission for The Church Alive!, bringing Jesus to those who need Him most, especially the young.

At the heart of the effort is an outreach model based on Jesus’ ministry. Missionaries and trained volunteers meet kids where they are, whether on basketball courts, in housing projects or in schools that partner with the ministry.

Teens are mentored and taught the faith, attending worship nights, Bible studies, retreats and mission trips. Some are going to Mass regularly for the first time in their lives, and several have expressed interest in entering the church next Easter.

Expanding into Allentown and the Hill District is a “unique challenge and opportunity,” said Andy Lesnefsky, president of Dirty Vagabond Ministries. “Funding these new locations in the inner-city of Pittsburgh is a continued commitment to effectively evangelize and minister to the poor.”

Baptized at the former St. George church and growing up in the city’s Knoxville neighborhood, Calloway witnessed the steady decline of the Hilltop area. Allentown lost 70 percent of its population from 1940 to 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Gun violence and poverty are higher than the citywide average.

St. George merged with St. Joseph, St. Canice and St. Henry parishes in 1994 to become St. John Vianney Parish, which closed in 2016 after a 77 percent decline in membership in a decade. Allentown became part of St. Mary of the Mount Parish in Mount Washington, which holds the charter to the community food bank, run by a nonprofit organization.

“I have deep-seated memories of St. George, which was a beautiful church,” said Calloway, now a member of St. Alphonsus Parish in Wexford. “But that’s not what Jesus cared about. We need to be present in Allentown, on the streets.”

“We spend so much time focused on our buildings,” said Father Michael Stumpf, pastor of St. Mary of the Mount. “Important as they are, we can’t forget that the church is the people.”

“We need to care for those who are poor, the excluded, and those who don’t know the Lord,” he said.

“Building on previous success, our vision is to make Pittsburgh a model of how to reach multiple neighborhoods in an inner-city,” Lesnefsky said. “Other dioceses already have shown interest in this kind of evangelization.”

Lesnefsky also expressed appreciation for the support they have received.

“We are so thankful to donors and partners who are helping to transform lives and our neighborhoods,” he said.

Addiction recovery

Grant to support addiction ministry

Rocco Magnelli, Jr. knows about addiction. His 20-year old son died from an opioid overdose in 2015 and his youngest daughter is an addict. As a recovering alcoholic, Magnelli serves as a sponsor to those suffering from the disease of alcohol and substance abuse.

“I understand the addict’s mind, and the struggles,” Magnelli said. “The solution has nothing to do with willpower, but a higher power.”

With more families and individuals being overwhelmed by the epidemic of opioid abuse and alcoholism, the board of directors of Our Campaign for The Church Alive! approved an evangelization grant to help establish a diocesan-wide Addiction Recovery Ministry.

Developed by Father Michael Decewicz, pastor of St. Juan Diego Parish in Sharpsburg, the ministry will operate out of the parish’s John Paul I Center. There is space for 12-step recovery meetings, prayer and Bible study groups and educational forums, with referrals to community resources.  Special Masses and anointing of the sick also will be available.

“The emphasis is on Step Five, making a personal moral inventory,” said Magnelli, a member of the ministry team. “Addicts and alcoholics must admit the exact nature of their wrongs.”

Father Decewicz, who has been open about his own recovery from alcoholism, said the center will provide a one-on-one ministry for abusers and their family and friends, while also supporting clergy, school principals, directors of religious education and pastoral associates who are offering assistance. He feels an additional urgency because he is the recipient of a kidney transplant.

“I know I’m on borrowed time, and I see how the outbreak is growing,” Father Decewicz said. “This ministry is a good way to evangelize, preaching the gospel and giving back.”

Allegheny County recorded 735 overdose deaths in 2017, according to revised data, the third year in a row that it broke its own record. Fatal overdoses also have risen dramatically in Butler and Lawrence counties, falling slightly last year in Washington and Beaver counties after recent increases.

An estimated 23 million Americans suffer from addiction to drugs or alcohol, and more than 610,000 died from opioid-related overdoses nationwide from 1999 to 2016.

Hospitals, rehabilitation centers and government agencies are collaborating with communities to combat the crisis, but this approach is pastoral, and includes leaders of other faith traditions.

“The paramount dynamic of our ministry is spiritual—how we manifest and respond to the love of God,” said psychologist and author William Kraft, who serves on the team. “It works well for the Church Alive. The time is ripe.”

Team member Julie Truver, whose family has been impacted by substance abuse, said that while some people are able to quit drugs, the statistics for full recovery are grim.

“This is a lifelong battle for addicts,” she said. “Education is a priority and needs to begin at the grade school level with parents and children.”

“Addiction disconnects people from themselves, from loved ones and from God,” said Jim Hanna, pastoral associate at St. Anne Parish in Castle Shannon, who helped to found the parish-based Substance Addiction Ministry in 2014. “This new diocesan center will make a difference and show the church is serious about responding.”

Christian Brother Mark Lowery, who has been in alcoholism recovery for nearly a quarter century, likes the idea of a place where people can come for meetings and get spiritual help.

“I work with younger ex-convicts who are in recovery and every month I bring Central Catholic students to tour the county jail,” Brother Mark said. “They understand this is reality. It makes a big impression on them.”

In the late 1990s and into the 2000s, prescribed pain relievers like Percocet, Vicodin and OxyContin were the main causes of opioid overdose deaths. However, these prescriptions have been declining since 2011, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Today, the killers are heroin and fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is 50 times as potent as heroin. The substances are often mixed together.

“The medical profession contributed to the problem in treating pain, but I’ve seen a change in mindset,” said pharmacist Bill Ashton, a member of St. Joan of Arc Parish who serves on the new addiction recovery team.

“Like most pastors, I have presided at many funerals of young people who have died from this epidemic,” Father Decewicz said. “I feel a passion for the church to be a visible sign and presence of love and healing for those in need.”

Local Latinos take part in a Eucharistic procession on June 3 at St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Beechview.

Reaching out to Latino Catholics

As more Latinos move into southwestern Pennsylvania, the Diocese of Pittsburgh is providing pastoral support to keep their Catholic culture strong.

The volunteer board of directors of Our Campaign for The Church Alive!, Inc. has approved a grant expanding formation and outreach to Latino Catholics, supported by sacrificial gifts from donors to the campaign.

The U.S. Latino population reached nearly 58 million in 2016, accounting for half the nation’s population growth since 2000, according to the Pew Research Center. Nearly seven out of 10 Latinos are Catholic. About 40,000 Latinos now live in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, according to Jorge Vela, diocesan coordinator of Latino ministry.

Campaign funds will support a part-time catechetical director who will develop and implement the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd program in all Latino parishes, and promote spiritual formation programs such as Rediscover and Adore the Holy Eucharist. Latinos generally have a strong, family-centered faith that need support from the Church.

“This grant will help make a big difference in teaching the faith,” Vela said. “We hope to later expand our Spanish-speaking catechesis program to other parishes.”

Four rooms in the former convent at St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Pittsburgh’s Beechview neighborhood have been converted into two classrooms to accommodate students from St. Regis Parish in Oakland. Spanish-language Masses are celebrated at both parishes, as well as at Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal Parish in Meadow Lands, Our Lady of Joy in Plum and St. Paul in Butler.

“Our mission today certainly includes welcoming Latinos who come to our diocese bringing with them many gifts and talents, first of which is their vibrant Catholic faith and love for the Church,” said auxiliary Bishop William Waltersheid.

“At a time when family life seems to be suffering so much, our Latino brothers and sisters remind us of the sacredness of family life and the importance of the bond between parents and children.”

The grant also supports the attendance of five representatives from the local Latino community at the Fifth National Encuentro of Hispanic/Latino Ministry (V Encuentro) to be held in September outside Dallas, Texas. Some 3,000 leaders are registered for the conference, which has been a catalyst for developing ministries among U.S. Latinos over the past 50 years.

More than 100 bishops are expected to lead diocesan delegations at V Encuentro.

The campaign funds also will provide training for volunteer catechists, young and adult leaders, promote religious vocations and improve communications.

Seminarians in the diocese now take part in a Latino immersion experience, learning about the languages, cultures and needs of their population through course work and by visiting the parishes and homes of Latino families.

“It is important to build relationships in the Latino community,” said Father Fernando Torres, parochial vicar at St. Catherine of Siena Parish. “A lot of people really need our spiritual support.”

Chrissie (left) and Jackie warmly greet visitors and callers at McGuire Memorial Employment Option Center.

Helping those with special needs find their ‘niche’

First-time visitors to the McGuire Memorial Employment Option Center often come away with two lasting impressions—the happy, productive workplace atmosphere, and the infectious smiles of identical twin sisters.

Chrissie and Jackie have worked as co-receptionists at the licensed Adult Training Facility in Moon Township for the past four years, and have been a part of the program since it opened in 2002. The center offers day programs and school-to-work transitioning for adults with mild to moderate disabilities and/or autism.

“Chrissie and Jackie stick together, and they do a great job,” said Damon Krynicki, director of the Employment Option Center. “I like to say that everyone has a niche—you just need to find it.”

Established in 1963, McGuire Memorial offers comprehensive services to more than 300 children and adults with multiple, complex disabilities. They provide a school, intermediate care facility, a life enrichment program for adults, and community homes.

Sacrificial gifts from donors to Our Campaign for The Church Alive! provided support to expand McGuire Memorial’s Community Solutions NOW program, helping those with special needs participate in work opportunities, volunteering and recreational outings.

The Employment Option Center offers vocational assessments and training, transitional work services, life skills, school-to-work programs and paid jobs. At the facility, clients label and stuff envelopes, shred documents and work in housekeeping.

Fifteen of the 84 adults work in local doctor’s offices, physical therapy centers, retailers and fast food restaurants. The Pittsburgh Airport Area Chamber of Commerce provides job leads and sends out an annual membership mailing through the center.

“They are wonderful to work with and really help us out,” said chamber executive director Michelle Kreutzer. “They’re a great asset to the community.”

The School at McGuire Memorial, also supported by the campaign, is licensed as an Approved Private School, providing individualized special education services for students ages 3 to 21 who have multiple intellectual and physical disabilities, or who are on the autism spectrum. The school offers a comprehensive education and a range of therapeutic services.

“Our goal is to always help these amazing children to be as independent as they can be,” said director Kim Scanlon Lieb. “We bring them into the community, teaching them how to use money, follow directions by going into the supermarket or mall, and to feel the grass under their feet in a park.”

Lieb, who volunteered at McGuire Memorial as a child and worked in the residential program during college, said they serve students with challenging needs. There are 11 different programs for those who can learn to read, five math programs, and three for handwriting. Speech, physical and occupational therapists work with students, along with behavior analysts.

A non-profit organization that serves people of all faiths and backgrounds, McGuire Memorial believes in the sacredness of life and the right of every individual to compassionate, holistic care.

“As a Felician-sponsored ministry, McGuire Memorial exemplifies the core values of the Felician Sisters and our Foundress, Blessed Mary Angela, whose charism is lived out each day through the selfless service of our employees,” said Sister Mary Thaddeus Markelewicz, CSSF, president and CEO.

Krynicki offered a thank you to donors.

“Their gifts are going to a good use,” Krynicki said. “They better peoples’ lives and help our community partners.

“Our clients are gifts to all of us.”

Luke Worgul (center) and his parents, Kristen and John, play a music game with Kaitlin Wade,                    speech language therapist, at DePaul School for Hearing and Speech.

‘DePaul School has meant so much to us’

The prenatal visits gave no sign of problems. But soon after Luke Worgul was born, doctors came back with the diagnosis: Luke had moderate hearing loss. At two months old, he was fitted with a hearing aid.

Today, thanks in part to a new early intervention effort at DePaul School for Hearing and Speech, Luke is a happy, well-adjusted two-year-old. His parents, John and Kristen Worgul of Squirrel Hill, couldn’t be happier.

“Luke is doing fantastic,” Kristen said. “DePaul School has meant so much to us and all the families going through this, giving kids the best outcomes possible.”

DePaul School, in Pittsburgh’s Shadyside neighborhood, was able to assist the Worguls and other parents thanks to a grant from Our Campaign for The Church Alive! The Baby and Parent Program at DePaul is supported by donors’ sacrificial gifts.

“We’re now able to help children as soon as they are diagnosed with hearing loss,” said Ruth Auld, executive director of DePaul School. “We started this group to get parents connected, and to know they’re not alone.”

“The goal is to have fun, socialize and learn,” said Michelle Parfitt, director of early intervention services. “It’s a key time to develop listening and spoken language skills.”

Audrey Craig was enrolled about three years ago in DePaul’s toddler program. Like 70 percent of their students, she had received a cochlear implant—a small electronic device that replaces the function of the damaged inner ear to provide sound signals to the brain.

Now, at age five, Audrey is ready to follow her sister Kelly, 9, from DePaul into the Mohawk Area School District in Lawrence County. Parents Justin and Tracy Craig, like the Worguls, are hopeful about the future.

“At first we were nervous, with the girls going to school at such a young age, but we’re very pleased,” Tracy said. “We know they will be able to do whatever they want in life, and we’re excited for this next step for Audrey.”

John Sopczynski, Jr. can provide parents with a glimpse what is possible. He received cochlear implants as a toddler and learned to listen and speak at DePaul until he was mainstreamed at St. Joan of Arc and St. Louise de Marillac schools in the South Hills.

He’s now earned an electrical engineering degree at Penn State University and is employed by Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory in West Mifflin. He’s also working toward a master’s of science in electrical engineering at the University of Pittsburgh and a graduate certificate in nuclear engineering.

“The teachers at DePaul are like an extended family to me,” Sopczynski said. “They prepared me well for school and the workforce, and continue to play a big role in my life.”

Founded in 1908 by the Diocese of Pittsburgh and the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill, DePaul is the only listening and spoken language school in the tri-state region for students who are deaf or hard of hearing. The goal has remained the same—to prepare each child for success in the hearing and speaking world.

“The education and medical technology sectors are changing rapidly,” Auld said. “Cochlear surgery implants can now be performed at 12 months of age.

“Parents often walk through our doors feeling scared, many going through a grieving process. But they are leaving with smiles, knowing that nothing can hold their children back,” she said.

Kristen Worgul expressed her gratitude to supporters of the Church Alive! campaign.

“Thank you to the donors,” she said. “It means so much to us and all of the families going through these challenges to have the extra support.”