Heart of the 'Burgh

PittGirl takes a trip to the North Side's Light of Life Rescue Mission and finds a whole lot of love.

Photos by Virginia Montanez

If we're playing charades and your job is to act out volunteering at a homeless shelter, what's your strategy? What do you act out?

If someone tells you they spent the afternoon volunteering at a homeless shelter, what kind of images pop into your brain?

I'm willing to bet that almost all of you, and me, instantly go to the act of wearing a hair net and a white apron while scooping stuffing or macaroni and cheese onto a plate being held by a worn-out, emotionally exhausted, unbathed human being wearing gloves with the fingers cut off.

And that's what I expected to see when I recently took a tour of the Light of Life Rescue Mission on the North Side — a string of the destitute lined up with plates in hand waiting to receive their spooned-out portions of stuffing from cheery volunteers with bright eyes and vaguely pitying smiles.

Well, the cheery volunteers part is right, and there is a kitchen and there is food spooned out, but whatever images you have in your head are not at all the totality of what you'll encounter at the Light of Life, despite the fact that the photo on the front page of their website is indeed cheery volunteers spooning out food while wearing aprons and hair nets.

You do not see pitying smiles. You do not step over a heaping pile of dignity that was shed at the front door.

What you will encounter is a library. A classroom. Beds. Showers. Bins of donated toiletries. A chapel. A constant buzz of activity all through the mission as Pittsburghers come and go, as food is cooked and served, as classes are taught and lessons are learned, as groups meet and lives change. And good luck guessing which staff member used to be a homeless client. I still don't know who it is.

Light of Life isn't just feeding mouths, it is working to address the issues that brought about the homelessness in the first place — issues such as addiction, mental illness, abuse and more. Clients can take classes to learn skills that will help them become employable. Single mothers and children in crisis can obtain subsidized apartments, life assistance, counseling, education and training. Men can enroll in a program designed to stabilize the current chaos they are living in, address the immediate concerns, and develop a plan to drastically alter the current course of their lives through counseling, housing, training, education and more.

Then there are the roughly 92,000 meals the mission provides each year and the two-dozen men that seek emergency shelter EACH NIGHT.

It's easy to try to turn a blind eye to those Pittsburghers whose safety net fell away a long time ago, because facing that reality is uncomfortable and it forces us to acknowledge that there are people who desperately need what some have in plenty — food, shelter, love, support, help.

But there are many well known 'Burghers who have chosen to open their eyes wide to the issue and have found a way to help. Many of the local professional athletes have taken time to visit the shelter to meet the clients in the programs.

Upper St. Clair native, former Pirate, and member of the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame, MLB All-Star Sean Casey (who still makes his home here in Pittsburgh) takes it upon himself to donate his time each week to teach a fitness class to the Light of Life clients. He gets them outside. Gets them to consider taking better care of their bodies. Gets them moving and paying attention to their health. He does this without request for recognition and the only way I discovered it was that my tour guide, staff member Jessie Marsh, casually mentioned something about him and I insisted on hearing the details.

Because I'm nebby with a capital N but only until I near the border of jagoff with a capital J. I don't want that stamp in my Burgh passport.

Be sure to learn more about this treasure on our North Side, which incidentally is housed in what was once a turn-of-the-century brothel rumored to have been patronized by some of Pittsburgh's most wealthy men. You know I'm researching THAT.

Consider what you can do to help the mission and the people they serve. And be sure to check out the photos not only of the mission, but of Sean Casey in action.

Categories: PittGirl