5 Local Nonprofits Improving the Lives of Others
Words by M. Diane McCormick
Photography by Kelly Ann Shuler
They are woven into our lives like fiber on a loom. Today’s charities run like businesses, with eyes on outcomes and returns on investment, but they measure profit only by improved lives. These five organizations represent the Harrisburg area’s vibrant nonprofit sector, essential to assuring a community that is strong and resilient, educated and informed, healthy and safe.
American Association of University Women (AAUW), Harrisburg Branch
AAUW Harrisburg, founded in 1921, is a branch of the national American Association of University Women. The nonpartisan group advances equity for women and girls through advocacy, education, philanthropy and research.
Women have made enormous progress, but barriers remain, notes Harrisburg branch Co-President Carol Stark. The national AAUW reports that the gender pay gap won’t close until 2152, and girls’ dramatic achievements in science and engineering studies isn’t matched by their representation in those professional fields.
As branch Co-President Susan Boal Shill says, “How many years did we bonk our heads on the glass ceiling? I’ve got a few bonks on my cranium.”
AAUW is a conduit for public engagement, assuring women – and male members, too – a voice in public affairs and support as they strive for self-sufficiency.
Harrisburg AAUW activities include:
• Awarding scholarships.
• Mobilizing advocacy for critical issues facing policymakers.
• Get-out-the-vote efforts, in partnership with other community groups.
• Monthly meetings on relevant topics of the day, from international affairs to the heroin epidemic.
• Support for community services helping women and girls, such as maintaining a library and stocking free reading materials at YWCA Greater Harrisburg and volunteering for STEM programs at Whitaker Center for Science and the Arts.
• Annual awards recognizing area women who help uplift women and girls.
• Groups for members pursuing shared interests, including dining, cooking, reading, theater and travel.
Molly Lemke has always been crazy about animals, but she once feared that she lacked the emotional stamina to pursue a veterinary career, because their suffering “sounded like too much to handle.” But as a Castaway Critters volunteer for two years, she learned to withstand heartache, even when it meant cradling a dying kitten or learning that a successfully adopted cat had died.
Now, she understands the value of “being there for a creature that is in pain and crying out for a touch of kindness.” She is intent on pursuing her studies in veterinary technology, with an eye on someday performing rescues and helping people in difficult situations keep their pets.
Her studies brought her in contact with AAUW, an organization new to her until a friend told her about available scholarships.
Lemke, originally from Dillsburg and now in Camp Hill, is the winner of the Harrisburg branch’s 2016 Martha M. Dohner Scholarship. She expects to graduate from Wilson College in spring 2019, and the scholarship aids her goal of concentrating on her schooling without needing a full-time job to pay for it.
The scholarship came with a membership in AAUW, “which is a source of inspiration as well as sources of help for navigating the world as a female student.”
“I’m grateful to live in a world that is starting to equalize its treatment of men and women,” she says. “However, 2016 in particular (with the election) brought to light a lot of ugliness that shows we aren’t there yet. Organizations like the AAUW are still very much needed.”
For more information, visit harrisburg-pa.aauw.net.
American Red Cross, Central Pennsylvania Chapter
The American Red Cross works to prevent and alleviate human suffering. The Central Pennsylvania chapter serves 22 counties, with a staff of 35, plus 1,200 volunteers who “do pretty much anything you can think of,” says Regional Chief Executive Officer Jeri Sims.
If you or someone you know has been in crisis, served in the military or needed blood, the American Red Cross, founded in 1881, has been there. In the past year, the Harrisburg-based chapter has served 1,379 cases with emergency communications and critical services. The American Red Cross operates under a congressional mandate, but they receive no government funding.
This year marks the Central Pennsylvania Chapter’s 100th anniversary. The celebration kicks off with a gala on March 30 (call the chapter for tickets).
• Support for incoming, active and veteran military. Services include delivering emergency messages, emergency financial support for the sick and wounded at veterans’ hospitals and personal-care items for homeless veterans.
• Disaster response, providing shelter, food and clothing to victims of fires, floods and other emergencies. Services even extend to mental-health needs and pet bereavement.
• Training in first aid, including CPR/AED, water safety, skills for babysitters and caregivers and Red Cross preparedness mobile apps.
• Deployment to crisis hot spots, locally or miles away. The Red Cross is now establishing canteens at man made disaster sites, such as mass shootings and manhunts.
• Supporting American Red Cross Blood Services.
Volunteers, it seems, can find as much fulfillment as service recipients. Dan Whiteside served 29 years in the U.S. Army, retiring as a colonel. He and other commanders couldn’t have done their jobs without the American Red Cross, which he considered “a member of the family.” When a soldier’s loved one was dying or faced an emergency, the American Red Cross mobilized to find him – even in “the middle of nowhere” in pre-cell phone days – so he could help that soldier get home.
And everywhere they were stationed, Marcey Whiteside volunteered with local Red Cross units. At Fort Riley, Kansas, she oversaw 89 Red Cross volunteers and wrote a program on asking the exact questions to ascertain the needs of the young wives and young mothers at the base’s pregnancy and well-baby clinic.
When they retired in Mechanicsburg, the Whitesides volunteered at the local Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS), where recruits in all branches begin their service. The recruits are nervous. Their parents are fearful. The Whitesides provide reassurance by briefing them on Red Cross supports.
“The poor moms are sitting there, and the tears are running down their face,” Dan says.
“You never settle them down entirely, but you make them feel relaxed, you make them feel welcome,” adds Marcey.
Red Cross emergency procedures “are very specific and well spelled-out,” she says, providing the comfort that family ties will remain intact, even in crises.
The Whitesides feel that they’re a team, bringing their military experience to families embarking on a new venture. Marcey thought that her days of rising before dawn were over, but by the time she leaves the MEPS at 10 a.m., she knows why she does it.
“I walk away and feel like I’ve done something,” she says. “It’s sort of like you made a difference in their lives.”
For more information, call (866) 311-3832 or visit redcross.org/local/pennsylvania/central-pennsylvania.
Boys & Girls Club of Harrisburg
The Boys & Girls Club helps youth develop self-esteem and character, guiding them toward responsible citizenship through physical, recreational, social, educational and vocational programs.
More than 1,300 members receive structured and guidance-oriented activities. Youth ages 6 to 18 gather, play and learn under the eye of qualified professionals assuring that children are safe, have fun and stay on task.
Children and youth find outlets for their talents and energies, learning to strive for achievement and, above all, stay on track academically.
Boys & Girls Club of Harrisburg services include:
• Sports and fitness programs promote physical activity, good nutrition and healthy relationships.
• Separate programs for teen boys and girls – SMART Girls and Passport to Manhood – encourage healthy attitudes and lifestyles as young people mature and grow.
• In clubs, children plan and implement their own community-service efforts.
• Let’s Get Dirty!, a partnership with Ngozi, Inc., teaches youth gardening and sustainability skills.
• Power Hour is daily time devoted to homework help and encouraging self-directed learning.
• Career exploration inspires teens to graduate and pursue post-secondary learning.
“Our children all know that graduation is a must,” says Executive Director Yvonne Hollins, a veteran educator. “It’s not an option.”
Most of this fun and learning goes on in the sprawling, pristine clubhouse on Mulberry Street in Harrisburg, equipped with video and table games, computer lab, new gym and the Field of Dreams-worthy Mark and Betty Butler Field at Ollie’s Bargain Outlet Park, built with support from the Cal Ripken, Sr., Foundation.
“We’re showing our children how to get from A to Z,” says Hollins. “Not just telling them what they can do, but also how they get there. We provide them with all the resources they need in order to be positive, successful citizens.”
Zaria Carter, Boys and Girls Club of Harrisburg’s 2016 Youth of the Year, says she “feels privileged” to belong.
“It’s a great opportunity coming here,” says Zaria, 15. “I don’t think I would have gotten introduced to as many opportunities, meeting all the people I did, making the friends I did.”
Her friend, Mariah Penn, 14, loves the fun and the opportunities to grow. She remembers once being upset at feeling left out by some other kids, and a staff member sat them down to iron out the matter.
“Sometimes, kids don’t talk to each other, and that’s how problems start, and Mr. Malik had us all talk about it,” she says.
She has learned, she says, “how to respect myself, how to carry myself and how to listen to others.”
Through the club, the girls play sports, do their homework, help nursing-home residents play bingo, mentor younger club members, prepare meals for those in need and travel to events around the region.
“It helps you not want to be what you see on the TV screens and love yourself the way you are and not try to be somebody else,” says Zaria.
Mariah, a student at Harrisburg School District’s Cougar Academy, hopes to be a doctor or veterinarian someday. Zaria, a Sci-Tech High School student who hopes to be a marriage counselor, understands that club staff set high expectations for members because “you have to reach goals to get opportunities. If you don’t have anything to strive for, there’s no point in you coming here. They want you to be a better you.”
For more information, call (717) 234-3268 or visit bgchbg.org.
Brethren Housing Association, Harrisburg
Helping homeless and low-income individuals and families achieve their potential through a holistic program of housing, services and support.
It’s as if our status as homeowners and renters is a game of Jenga. Pull out the wrong block – job, child care, car, health care, family support – and the tower tumbles. Pennsylvania’s 15,333 homeless people in 2015 represent a slight rise from 2014, according to The State of Homelessness in America 2016.
Hundreds of thousands more risk homelessness due to unemployment, excessive housing costs or living doubled up with friends and relatives.
The Brethren Housing Association (BHA) is a recognized force for impact in its neighborhood of Allison Hill. Clients get secure homes in a safe neighborhood, paying rent on a sliding scale, while they learn self-sufficiency skills.
“You have to have a home to be able to work on all your other issues and challenges,” says Executive Director Crystal Brown. “At the end of the day, you want to go home.”
The services offered at the Brethren Housing Association include:
• Up to two years of transitional housing for women and children, plus life-skills coaching. “We see ourselves walking along with them on this journey because we want them to be able to pass those skills onto their children,” says Brown.
• Rapid, four-month rehousing for some homeless families.
• Permanent housing for people made homeless by disability.
• Follow-up support for BHA graduates living on their own.
• Mentors who help clients build connections and achieve goals.
• Youth program for resident children.
• Housing rehabilitation, transforming rundown homes into quality apartments for clients. BHA also built a three-unit townhouse, complete with garden and pavilion.
Even when she was discouraged by her job search, Damaris Rodriguez tried not to cry in front of BHA staff. She would continue working in factories – whatever it took to support her daughters – but she worried it would never be enough. Finally, through her trademark persistence and with help from BHA, she found work she loves as a translator and patient advocate at Hamilton Health Center.
Rodriguez was accepted into BHA around New Year’s 2013. She and her four daughters had come to Harrisburg from Reading after her boyfriend, on whom she depended financially, was arrested. Local programs provided nightly shelter, but it was hard to manage with the children.
After applying to BHA, Rodriguez called frequently to check on her status. When she got a three-bedroom, two-bath apartment, the girls weren’t allowed to use the upstairs bathroom “because I just never knew what they were doing,” Rodriguez says with a laugh.
Rodriguez lived in her apartment for about a year and a half. A BHA mentor suggested she apply for the Hamilton Health Center job, and BHA offered a reference. Her boyfriend has rejoined her and “will find a job anywhere. That one little setback, when this whole thing started, ruined everything, but now we’re better.”
Today, Rodriguez and her family have an apartment in downtown Harrisburg. She believes she’s setting a good example for her girls. Her oldest daughter, now 15, pitches in to help.
“She knows that everything I do is for them,” Rodriguez says.
Without BHA, she wouldn’t have known what to do.
“I wasn’t expecting to be rich,” she says, “but we’re making it, and I’m satisfied with how everything turned out.”
For more information, call (717) 233-6016 or visit bha-pa.org.
Kidney Foundation of Central Pennsylvania
With services for people with chronic kidney disease and their families, community education and living-donor advocacy to reduce wait times for lifesaving transplants, the Kidney Foundation of Central Pennsylvania (KFCP) is independent of the National Kidney Foundation, assuring that all donations stay local.
One adult in nine has chronic kidney disease, and many don’t know it. Kidney disease is hereditary for some, but for many others, it’s caused by diabetes and hypertension. In KFCP’s 28-county region, 7,002 people are undergoing dialysis due to end-stage renal disease. More than 1,000 Pennsylvanians received transplants in 2015, but 6,600 candidates are waiting for a kidney.
• Cash assistance that helps more than 350 kidney patients financially struggling to pay prescription co-pays, buy nutritional supplements, get transportation to dialysis or pay utility bills.
• Training mentors who support kidney patients and their caregivers.
• Camp Kydnie, a week-long, volunteer-run summer camp for children and teens with kidney disease and their friends and siblings. One boy loved camp so much that he feared a transplant would disqualify him from attending, but he was assured that he was always welcome because “once a kidney patient, always a kidney patient.” Summer 2017 is Camp Kydnie’s 25th anniversary. “The camp offers kids an understanding that they’re not alone,” says KFCP Executive Director Joan Line. “They have all these questions, and they get support from their peers and understand they can live a normal life.”
• An annual symposium, staged with Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, educating health care providers on the latest in research and treatment.
• Raising awareness of kidney disease causes, treatments and prevention.
“I take 22 pills a day,” says Carole J. Fair. “You have this pill box. It takes a half hour to fill it up every week.”
Fair was born with a hereditary kidney condition, and she had reached a point of doing her own dialysis at home, seven nights a week.
Finally, in complete kidney shutdown, her skin discolored and her energy flagging, Fair qualified for a transplant. A friend who offered a living kidney donation didn’t match, but the two became part of a four-way exchange of donors to recipients. Fair got her new kidney at Harrisburg Hospital on Feb. 21, 2011.
She was home in five days but still needed to conserve her energy in recovery. One day, she faced a choice. Would she drive to the library, or would she go to Wegmans for her first piece of pizza in ages? She chose the pizza.
Through it all, a KFCP-trained mentor, herself a transplant recipient, gave Fair the answers and support that even the most concerned family members couldn’t provide. Now, Fair is giving back. Since undergoing the rigorous eight-week training in the social and economic needs of kidney patients, she is a mentor to others.
With her strong faith in God, Fair never feared death from the transplant.
“He will take care of me,” she believed.
She carries that faith to this day, and she wrote a book, Transplanted to Better Health, to inspire others.
“You never give up,” she says. “You never give up. You just can’t.”
For more information, call (800) 762-6202 or visit kfcp.org.