- Associated Press - Saturday, October 11, 2014

PITTSBURGH (AP) - Teens are putting to rest any suggestion that they are self-centered slackers.

In ways large and small, they are giving of themselves with enthusiastic displays of community spirit.

Holly Turkovic considers herself fortunate to have the “awesome opportunity” with a view from the front lines as director of youth programs for Pittsburgh Cares (pittsburghcares.org), a volunteer mobilization organization.

Pittsburgh Cares believes that the collective efforts of volunteers can transform an entire city, Turkovic says. That begins with young people, almost 5,000 of whom gave 17,500 hours in volunteering last year, she reports.

“Folks who don’t have teenagers at home, or who don’t regularly interact with teens, sometimes see them as troublemakers because of what is covered in the media, rather than seeing them as the problem-solvers they are,” Turkovic says.

This generation is compassionate, empathetic and giving, she says. “When given the information and adequate resources that enable kids to make a difference, they excel beyond anything that we would ever expect.”

The issues students are focusing on through Pittsburgh Cares’ Youth Advisory Council are as diverse as the young leaders themselves: poverty, homelessness, LGBT rights and equality, animal rights and disease awareness and prevention.

The students plan their service projects around those issues in order to create visible change in their schools and communities, says Chris Lehberger, Pittsburgh Cares program manager.

Pittsburgh Cares hosts four Family Volunteer Days a year.

“It’s always so great to see families volunteer together,” Lehberger says. “Those families, mentors, role models and schools make it a priority to see healthier and better equipped young people enter adulthood. In fact, many studies link volunteering and service to employment.”

Another organization, Build-A-Bear Workshop, which recognizes and rewards charitable-minded youth, has chosen two Pittsburgh-area teens, Alexis Werner, 19, of Etna and Zack Abel, 15, of Franklin Park among 10 in the world as its 2014 Huggable Heroes. They received $5,000 scholarships and a $2,500 donation to the charity of his or her choice.

“It’s a remarkable honor. It gives me the opportunity to be a role model and an influence for other kids on a national level,” Werner says. “I want everyone, adults included, to see that it is possible for one person to make a difference in the lives of others. Regardless of how small or large the gesture is, every positive action helps change the world.”

Here’s a look at a small sampling of the Pittsburgh area’s charitable kids:

Alexis Werner

“The most fulfilling and amazing thing you can do with your life is help others,” says Alexis Werner, 19, of Etna, who is off to a world-class start.

At 15, she started the nonprofit Seeds of Hope (seedsofhopeforvets.org), which has become a national organization that offers support for veterans and their families, who, like hers, are affected by post-traumatic stress disorder. Werner is freshman at Temple, hoping for a career in nonprofit management.

In addition to promoting awareness, Seeds of Hope has planted self-sustaining gardens nationwide, including seven in the Pittsburgh area. She oversaw and edited “Seeds of Hope: The Beginning,” a children’s book, written by Roman Benty, about healthy eating, veteran appreciation and the importance of community service.

She is producing the student-made documentary, “Our Way Home,” to be distributed to schools, which follows the homecoming stories of veterans and the psychological effects of war.

“I never realized how large Seeds of Hope would become, but I feel blessed to have the chance to help those who have risked their lives to keep us safe,” says Werner, who volunteered more than 3,000 hours in the past four years. This past summer, she helped in Haiti with a group called Team Tassy.

“The kids are out there making a change,” says her mother, Nicole Zottola, a master sergeant at the 911 Air Reserve Wing. “My husband and I have raised Lex to speak through her actions, as they carry more weight than words. Rather than accept her situation for what it was, she took a stand and discovered her strength through her love of helping others.”

Zack Abel

A former Make-A-Wish recipient, now cancer-free, Zack Abel, 15, is enthusiastically paying it forward. He raised $119,000 to support “Wish Kids” in the Pittsburgh area. By creating Make A Move for Make-A-Wish, an annual bike, walk and run in Allegheny County’s North Park, and other fundraisers, the North Allegheny sophomore has helped grant about 30 wishes for children battling cancer in the past three years.

“It makes me feel good because I know what kids with life-threatening illness are going through,” says Zack, who spent a significant portion of his childhood living in Children’s Hospital.

“He faced many obstacles to overcome the cancer, but he did it and he did it with a smile on his face and with a ton of strength,” his mom, Natalie, says.

Her son’s recognition as one of Build-A-Bear Workshop’s top Huggable Heroes in the world means a lot to her.

“He has a huge heart. He has had to overcome so much since he was 5, and to watch him selflessly give back - so that other kids like him could have some happiness like he did - is overwhelming, as a parent,” she says.

Riley Shea-Wood

With a mom as a social worker, Riley Shea-Wood, 14, says the message of “giving back” has been ingrained since birth. Now, as a member of Pittsburgh Cares’ Youth Advisory Council, the freshman at the Obama Academy of International Studies is excited to meet and collaborate with other like-minded teens.

“I don’t think of the volunteering I do as ‘giving back.’ I feel like I get more than I give,” says Riley, whose dream job is to work for the United Nations.

Riley and her family donate food and supplies to local women’s shelters, food banks and animal shelters. She will be participating in social-justice projects with a mentor at First Unitarian Church, Shadyside, as part of the “Coming of Age” process this year. And she traveled to Guatemala this summer through Global Leadership Adventures to experience community service outside of the United States.

“It was even better than I expected it to be. I enjoyed getting to know the Mayan children and learned so much from them,” says Shea-Wood.

Mom Stephanie Shea says she was “so blown away” by her daughter’s transformation. “I never thought it possible in two short weeks,” she says. “She seemed so much more mature and confident when she returned home and was excited and ready to take on the world.”

Volunteering, Shea says, is a great way for teens to take a step back and see the larger picture. “Finding a project or a cause that one is passionate about can help facilitate a tremendous amount of appreciation and self-awareness.”

Ungarino family

“Just because you’re young doesn’t mean that you can’t make a difference,” says Anna Ungarino, 13, an eighth-grader at Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter School. That’s why she loves volunteering for Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation, which raises awareness and finances in the struggle against childhood cancer (alexslemonade.org).

Anna is the youngest of four siblings, all of whom are actively involved in giving of their time for various causes. “My family volunteers a lot. It’s just part of who we are,” she says. “I think all people have the responsibility of working together to make the world better and the lives of those that need help a little easier.”

Andy, 18, a Penn State freshman and member of Bugles Across America, volunteers to play “Taps” at military funerals and ceremonies honoring our country and its veterans.

Gina, 16, a junior at Northgate High School, donates her time to a shop called WearWoof, an upscale resale-clothing boutique that benefits animal shelters.

Nick, 15, a junior at Northgate, takes part in Alex’s Lemonade Stand’s Million Mile Run/Walk or Ride and the Man Up for Prostate Cancer race in Pittsburgh.

Katie Horner

There’s a good reason why some people aren’t aware of the giving spirit of teens and even preteens, says Katie Horner, a junior at Oakland Catholic High School.

“Young people of all ages volunteer to help their communities, but we aren’t seeking recognition for our efforts, so our contributions may not be highly visible,” says Horner, 16, who has been selected as the youngest to be honored by the Dignity and Respect Council of Greater Pittsburgh (dignityandrespect.org).

Horner has donated about 400 hours of her time in less that two years. Serving as a tutor for the Homeless Children’s Education Fund each Monday after school, she visits Mom’s House in East Liberty, where she works with elementary-age children.

“It makes me feel so good when I walk in and they are excited to see me,” she says. “I’m just as excited to see them and help them learn.”

She stocks shelves and fills grocery bags to be delivered to homebound senior citizens at the Squirrel Hill Community Food Bank. At Marian Manor, she escorts elderly residents and helps them take part in social activities.

Horner has been a volunteer counselor at the Shadyside Academy Children’s Summer Camp and took part in Oakland Catholic’s service trip to Washington, D.C., during her last spring break.

“Through volunteering,” says dad John Horner, “young people can gain professional experience, discover hidden talents, test out a career, strengthen their community and make a real difference.”





Information from: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, https://pghtrib.com



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