Volunteers give it forward together
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VolunteeringGIFT is offering 500 Thanksgiving kits for seniors at home.

Volunteers give it forward together

Giving It Forward Together's Thanksgiving to GO program brings together children, adults and seniors who collaborate to provide Thanksgiving kits for seniors.

Volunteer Jeremy Venanzi with a senior (Photo courtesy of Rochel Tombosky)
Volunteer Jeremy Venanzi with a senior (Photo courtesy of Rochel Tombosky)

When Rochel Tombosky founded Giving It Forward Together (GIFT) in 2015, she wanted it to be the kind of effort that lets everyone get involved.

Take its “Thanksgiving to GO” program, providing Thanksgiving kits for seniors spending the holiday at home: Adult volunteers cooked and packaged the perishables, seniors assembled the nonperishables and kids and adults delivered the kits to seniors — all, as the nonprofit’s name suggests, giving it forward together.

“No one really loves to be a receiver,” said Tombosky. “We work all our lives to be givers, and then we get to this stage in our life where it seems like more and more, we’re just receiving. We lose this feeling of meaning and purpose in our lives. GIFT is all about reestablishing that, reminding people that if they still have a breath, they still have a purpose.”

Before COVID-19, Tombosky said, some seniors would assemble kits and then take one home because they’d be alone for the holiday.

Now, during the pandemic, the need is even greater than before as many seniors who would normally spend Thanksgiving with their families will be staying home. So GIFT is stepping up, offering 500 Thanksgiving to GO kits, its biggest batch.

“Before COVID, I don’t know that everyone could understand that concept — how a senior might feel,” said Tombosky. “But I think now that we’ve all experienced loneliness or not being able to be social or connect to people like we used to, we can understand.

“To be able to provide someone the opportunity to have a beautiful Thanksgiving, and that could be their last Thanksgiving — it sounds morbid, but it’s really meaningful.”

She opted to have the food catered since the volunteers couldn’t gather to whip up fresh rolls, cranberry applesauce, turkey pot pie and more like they would pre-pandemic. Seniors couldn’t help with the assembly this year, but small groups of volunteers, 15 max, put together the kits at Congregation Beth Shalom. Volunteers delivered the kits, but they dropped them off outside seniors’ homes and didn’t go inside to chat this year.

Michele Woltshock with her family (Photo courtesy of Michele Woltshock)
Michele Woltshock is one of those volunteers. She learned of Thanksgiving to GO through Tree of Life Congregation’s sisterhood and decided to deliver kits.

“I just wanted to donate my time and have my daughter see that we are very fortunate, we are young and healthy and have families, and it’s good for you to be kind and help people who have less than you,” said Woltshock. “I told Rochel, ‘This is actually a gift to our family.’”

She delivered kits to several seniors last year, not knowing she’d build a friendship with one senior that would extend far beyond that initial delivery with visits throughout the year and another Thanksgiving to GO delivery.

Part of a Thanksgiving to GO kit (Photo courtesy of Rochel Tombosky)
The kit includes prepackaged food, a booklet with emergency numbers and fun activities, and exercise bands to accompany a routine created by a Chatham professor and a physical therapist who volunteered for kit delivery last year. The food is kosher to be inclusive of different diets, Tombosky explained, as GIFT serves people of varying religions and backgrounds.

“When we do things at GIFT, we are seeing the godliness of every person, whether they’re Jewish or not,” said Tombosky.

Organizations like the Nina Baldwin Fisher Foundation, Comfort Keepers, UPMC and Community LIFE stepped up to offer financial support, and volunteers came from the community. Some had participated in other GIFT programs like CHAT, or Corona Halts At Talk, which pairs youth with seniors for weekly 15-minute calls.

“It takes a lot of hands to achieve her goals,” said Woltshock. “So many people get to benefit from the work.”

Woltshock almost feels guilty, she said, being the face of the effort as a deliverer when so much work has gone into all of the behind-the-scenes steps.

“This is Rochel’s vision, somebody made all this food, somebody boxed it, I’m like the next step that gets to do something good for somebody,” she said. “I’m just very appreciative that we get to play a small role in this very big undertaking. We get out of it so much more than we give.”

GIFT’s next big program is “Passover to GO,” an effort Tombosky sees as more important now than ever because of COVID-19 and the proposed closure of Charles Morris Nursing and Rehabilitation Center.

Tombosky’s husband has an opportunity in Las Vegas, and the couple is moving in December. But Tombosky will continue her work full time with GIFT, and she sees the move as a chance to add more GIFT locations.

“It’s the Florida of the West Coast,” she said of Vegas. “It would be the place to start.” PJC

Kayla Steinberg can be reached at ksteinberg@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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