Volunteers Bring Spirit to Christmas Day at Pitt

  • Stewart Anderson in a santa hat and Marlon Jones in a red top hat in front of Christmas tree
    Graduate School of Public Health colleagues Stewart Anderson, professor in the Department of Biostatistics (left) and Marlon Jones, senior data manager with NRG Oncology, have been volunteering together for years at Christmas Day at Pitt. More than 150 people from Pitt and the University’s dining service offer meals to individuals and families in need. Staff and faculty also donate gifts for children and gift bags of cold weather essentials.
  • LaShawn Youngblood with snowman figuring in foreground
    LaShawn Youngblood, receptionist in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences’ chemistry department, is an 11-year volunteer at the annual Christmas Day at Pitt. More than 150 people from Pitt and the University’s dining service offer meals to individuals and families in need. Staff and faculty also donate gifts for children and gift bags of cold weather essentials.
  • Senthil Natarajan sits in front of a Christmas tree
    Senthil Natarajan, a software engineer in Computing Services and Systems Development, began volunteering for the Christmas Day at Pitt celebration when he joined Pitt a dozen years ago. More than 150 people from Pitt and the University’s dining service offer meals to individuals and families in need. Staff and faculty also donate gifts for children and gift bags of cold weather essentials.
  • Camille Burgess standing in front of a Christmas tree
    Camille Burgess, assistant director of student services and MBA programs for the Joesph M. Katz Graduate School of Business, brings 15 members of her family from three generations when she volunteers for Christmas Day at Pitt. More than 150 people from Pitt and the University’s dining service offer meals to individuals and families in need. Staff and faculty also donate gifts for children and gift bags of cold weather essentials.
  • Nanju Besagarahalli sitting in an armchair with brick wall in background
    Nanju Besagarahalli, systems analyst with Computing Services and Systems Development, began bringing his daughter Sonya, then age 10, along to Christmas Day at Pitt when he started at Pitt in 2006. She still comes, now 22 years old and a Pitt alumna. At the event, more than 150 people from Pitt and the University’s dining service offer meals to individuals and families in need. Staff and faculty also donate gifts for children and gift bags of cold weather essentials.

LaShawn Youngblood knows the true meaning of Christmas Day at Pitt.

“When you can reach out to somebody who has been out on the street and hasn’t eaten for a few days, and they can leave with a smile on their face — and a hat and a scarf — that can do so much more even than being with your family,” she said. “That can put a smile on your heart. Though they are strangers — just for that moment they are family.”

How to get involved

The deadline to register to volunteer for Christmas Day at Pitt is Dec. 15. Click to see opportunities and available shifts. Volunteers must be at least 10 years old.

Share joy this season by adding just one gift for a child in need to your holiday shopping list. Community and Governmental Relations’ holiday gift drive is taking place now through Wednesday, Dec. 13, and gifts will be distributed at the Christmas Day at Pitt event. Details of the gift drive are available in the University Times.

Youngblood, receptionist in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Scienceschemistry department, is an 11-year volunteer for the annual Christmas Day at Pitt event, where more than 150 people from Pitt and Sodexo Campus Services, the University’s dining service, offer 2,500 Christmas meals to individuals and families in need, in addition to students who aren’t leaving campus during the winter break. Pitt staff and faculty also donate more than 500 holiday gifts for children and 1,000 gift bags filled with winter hats, gloves and other cold weather essentials.

This year’s event will be held on Dec. 25 in Litchfield Towers’ Market Central, from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Youngblood particularly enjoys joining members of several Pitt athletic teams, who help in advance of Christmas Day, wrapping gifts donated by members of the Pitt community. She’s says that she’s done nearly every job at the event through the years, from greeting people coming through the doors to giving out desserts and cleaning tables.

Besides, she added, working at Pitt “is not just a job. Volunteering is something that we want to do. When you want to do something, people can feel it.

“The biggest way you can give is to help your community. What better gift to give than love?”

The origin of the mission

The event began a dozen years ago, said John M. Wilds, assistant vice chancellor for community relations in the Office of Community and Governmental Relations, which organizes the event. The Salvation Army, which had run the event from several downtown Pittsburgh hotels, asked Pitt to take over part of its long-running Christmas mission of providing meals on that day, and the University added toy and winter clothing drives to offer gifts to attendees.

“If we didn't have the volunteers, we really couldn’t do it,” said Wilds. Every year, he said, Pitt staff and faculty begin requesting volunteer shifts even before the call goes out. “That’s the amazing part about it. People are willing to give up hours of their time on a holiday. People see the value of committing to provide a few hours of their time because they believe in what we are doing as an institution. A lot of them have been doing it as long as we’ve been doing it, and that’s great.”

Fellowship with coworkers

Long-time volunteers come to Christmas Day at Pitt in teams and in pairs, such as Graduate School of Public Health colleagues Marlon Jones and Stewart Anderson, who have been volunteering together for many years.

“Everyone’s wearing hats and all kinds of Christmas attire, from sweaters to T-shirts,” said Jones, who usually dons a special hat for the occasion. “I get a whole lot out of it. It’s a feel-good situation.”

Said Anderson: “It’s a very festive atmosphere — even before the people arrive. Maybe that’s what it should really be about, instead of all the commercialization of the holiday.”

Jones, senior data manager with NRG Oncology, is headed for his eighth year volunteering.

“I don’t know anywhere else in the city of Pittsburgh that does this to the extent they do, from the food to the entertainment,” he said, recalling the Salvation Army and other bands that play Christmas carols on site. Jones said that he usually lingers past his shift, just to keep soaking up the atmosphere.

“What better way to make you feel good all day than helping someone first. It’s just fantastic,” Jones said. “It’s another thing the University does that I love being a part of.”

Stewart, a professor in the Department of Biostatistics, was first attracted to the event simply because he missed Christmas after he converted to Judaism 30 years ago.

“It was a way of celebrating and a way to give to people,” from serving eggnog to preparing the silverware and napkins each year.

“It’s been a great experience for me. It makes you feel a little humbler. There really are people out there who are struggling.”

Teaching children to think of others

Camille Burgess, assistant director of student services and MBA programs for the Joesph M. Katz Graduate School of Business, brings 15 members of her family from three generations when she volunteers. The family has participated all 12 years at Pitt — and ever since the original event sponsored by the Salvation Army downtown, many years before.

“Every Christmas, before the kids can open any presents, they’re learning how to give back through this Christmas dinner,” Burgess said. “People fall on hard times, and by getting to know them, talking to them, kids gain perspective.”

Burgess, who does not have children, has watched her nieces and nephews — and now their own kids — grow up at the event. For the youngest ones, “every Christmas of their entire lives has been spent in service,” she noted. “They start asking about it in August. That’s how they believe Christmas should be celebrated.”

She remembers seeing her late nephew Peter, on pain medication for sickle cell anemia, still serving each Dec. 25th. “Peter would stand out there and smile and ask, ‘How are you doing?’ In spite of his own challenges he never hesitated to come.

“It’s amazing that the University does this,” she added. “If anyone is hungry or lonesome on that day, they can come out. I’ve heard many people tell me this is the one place they don’t feel put down or disrespected about their situation.”

A gift of time 

Senthil Natarajan, a software engineer in Computing Services and Systems Development, began volunteering for the Christmas Day celebration when he joined Pitt a dozen years ago.

“I thought, ‘Let me go and volunteer, because I am not celebrating at home,’” Natarajan said. “I really liked it. It gives me an opportunity to help a lot of people.”

Sometimes, he added, it may be hard for an individual to contribute money to charitable causes, no matter how important the cause may be. “But at least I can be a part of this and contribute a little bit of time to make people happy,” he said. “It’s a commitment to myself. As long as I am here I will try to do this."

Growing up with giving

Nanju Besagarahalli, systems analyst also with Computing Services and Systems Development, began bringing his daughter Sonya, then age 10, when he started at Pitt in 2006. She still comes, now 22 years old and a Pitt alumna.

Besagarahalli said it's a great honor for him and his daughter to help.

“I know we are blessed, but at the same time we like to share with as many people as possible, make their holidays a pleasure, so they should have a feeling that they are not ignored,” he said.

“Many people throughout my life have offered to help. So it is my turn and our turn to give back something and also teach our youngsters that this is a great cause.”

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