Volunteer Spotlight

Making a difference: The far-reaching effect of one woman’s volunteer efforts

It started with a simple request. In the fall of 1998 a fellow member of the Carlow University alumni board told Cheryl Walter that her women’s club needed help filling Christmas stockings for the children at HEARTH. At the time Cheryl, who was the choir director at Norwin High School, was looking for a volunteer project for her students, one that was personal and helped children.

That first year the chorus went out caroling in the area to earn money to fill the stockings. When Cheryl called to arrange delivery of the stockings, the HEARTH administrator told her that the entertainment for their holiday party had cancelled at the last minute. Cheryl stepped in and offered to bring in the show choir, the 40-member singing and dancing troupe of the chorus, to perform.

“From there it just kept getting better and better,” Cheryl says. Indeed it has. The volunteer effort has grown to twice-yearly show choir performances at HEARTH (one at Christmas and an “unbirthday” party each spring, a joint celebration of the children’s birthdays at HEARTH), Christmas stockings personalized by one of the former show choir mothers, and gifts for HEARTH kids that this year include hats, scarves hand-knitted by a friend of Cheryl’s, gloves, blankets, a $100 gift card and a personal gift from each show choir member. A former show choir mother works at Kohl’s and enlisted the store’s help to donate books and stuffed animals. Every year, the bus driver for the group reprises his role of Santa for the evening, which he’s been doing since that first show choir performance at HEARTH in 1998.

The volunteer effort now extends beyond the holidays and stretches across communities.

One of the show choir mothers is a 2nd grade teacher in McKeesport who, together with her students, friends and family, made and donated 50 blankets to HEARTH and other charities in honor of her 50th birthday.

Tragically, a young man from the show choir passed away and his parents requested donations to HEARTH in lieu of flowers. A special fund was created to cover expenses such as yearbooks and school photos for HEARTH children. The family is collecting donations again this year in his memory.

When two show choir alums got married they took up a collection for HEARTH during their church ceremony.

A perfect fit

santa1“The best part of all of this was finding a charity that fit our choir so well,” Cheryl says. “In fact it’s a perfect fit. The choir kids love the HEARTH kids and vice versa. The highlight of the show choir’s year is doing the parties at HEARTH and caroling to raise money.”

“When the show choir performs the HEARTH kids are so attentive,” Cheryl adds. “For some of them it is the first live performance they’ve ever seen and their first exposure to the performing arts.”

The show choir is a two- to three-year commitment and the children are at HEARTH for up to two years, a continuity that allows friendships to develop. Photos of three show choir boys and three boys from HEARTH even appeared in the Norwin High yearbook.

On a personal level Cheryl says that HEARTH supports her philosophy of empowering women. “HEARTH does so much. Women who go there can change their lives. It’s not just a band aid; it’s a wonderful opportunity to become stronger women.”

Standout memories

santa2When asked if there were any show choir experiences at HEARTH that stand out, Cheryl recalls that after one of their performances, a HEARTH resident told the choir that they were “jahara,” which she explained means “precious jewels.” “You are all precious jewels, all very different and multi-faceted,” she told the group. “You bring beauty and joy to people.”

Another year one little girl anxiously awaited the show choir’s arrival. When she saw them she started to cry and asked “Where’s Stephanie?” Stephanie had graduated and gone off to college, but a show choir member with red hair like the little girl’s quickly befriended her.

Continuing the good work

When Cheryl retired from Norwin High School in 2011 she hoped that the work with HEARTH would continue, and her successor has kept up the tradition. This year, chorus members went caroling to 28 different neighborhoods and collected $7,000.

santa4These days Cheryl is devoting her time to her travel agency, Norwin Express Tours, and the Expressions in Harmony Foundation, which she created to support HEARTH. The foundation recently achieved 501C3 status, and it’s Cheryl’s vision that former students will continue their volunteer efforts and fund raising through the foundation.

“I’m always amazed when I look at how this has grown from one idea, one statement,” Cheryl says. “They were looking for someone to do Christmas stockings and here we are 15 years later. This effort has touched so many lives. The choir and the kids at HEARTH have good memories that will last a lifetime.”

To learn more about volunteer opportunities at HEARTH, contact Vicky Gill at vlgill@hearth-bp.org or fill out or Volunteer Contact Form here.

To learn more about the Expressions in Harmony Foundation, contact Cheryl Walter at cherylwalt@aol.com or visit the Foundation’s Facebook Page at www.facebook.com/express.harmony.