Cooking, cleaning and running errands are all routine tasks many people accomplish every day. But for some, those tasks can’t be done without assistance.
Aid For Friends is an organization that helps those who cannot do these responsibilities on their own by providing meals, companionship and transportation.
Steven Schiavone is the executive director of AFF and the son of the organization’s founder, Rita Ungaro-Schiavone. Steven remembers Aid For Friends being a part of his life from a very young age. His involvement and interest started with a client named Dorothy.
“She was 60 years old but had the mind of a 5-year-old,” he said.
She had significant mental health problems that restricted her from being able to cook and bathe. Dorothy was alone and shunned by her neighbors because she would sometimes steal food from their garbage.
“I remember her crying to my mother,” Steven said. “She told her ‘I want to end it all today’ and she had a little bit of rat poison on the countertop and she even had a little for her dog too.”
His mother was able to calm Dorothy down that day but only because she made two important promises. The first was that she would bring meals so she wasn’t hungry anymore and the other was friendship.
Rita was a part of the Christian Family Movement or “faith in action.” Steven said it’s “not just saying prayers and going to church, but doing stuff for people in need.” And that is what AFF is founded on.
AFF has volunteers ranging from cooks, drivers, visitors and office workers. A person signed up for AFF receives seven free meals a week and a one on one relationship with someone that will visit once a week or more.
People over the age of 85 are the main clientele, but about 30 percent are under 60. Most are people with serious injuries and health issues, but the organization provides service to anyone in need of food and companionship.
AFF has freezers in about 230 churches and organizations in a five-county area. These churches and organizations provide meals made strictly through donations. They also assist in delivering either to an individual or back to AFF’s main headquarters in Parkwood.
One unique thing the headquarters has is a “gift room.” AFF realizes many of their clients may not receive presents for holidays and this is a place visitors can come and pick something up for them. The room is filled with piles of donated blankets, clothing and homemade knitted apparel.
“All the work the volunteers and churches do really adds up,” Steven said. “We are very grateful for that.”
Maternity BVM, located in Bustleton, is one of the churches that has been working with AFF for about 30 years. Tom Vitale is the coordinator there and helps church members who want to volunteer find something that suits their schedule. He also makes sure that the church freezer is stocked and meals get transported to AFF’s headquarters.
“The beauty of this is that you can do what you want,” Vitale said. The various volunteer positions and flexible time requirements make it a stress-free way to give back.
AFF provides more than 400,000 meals, including soups and breakfast bags, every year. All of the meals are free and come with an at home visit.
Frances Strauss spoke with Vitale six years ago after seeing an AFF flier in BVM’s church bulletin and has been visiting clients ever since. AFF made it easy for her to fit volunteering into her full-time job, family responsibilities and night classes routine.
“You get to know them and establish a friendship,” Strauss said, echoing Rita’s original promise.
A visitor’s job can be a painful one. In her six years as a volunteer, she has had about seven clients.
“You’re experiencing more losses in your life than you would, but those relationships you build, they’re important,” Straus said with tearful eyes. The reward is much greater than the heartache.
Maryanne was one of her clients who passed away, but Strauss still holds their memories close. Maryanne was unable to speak due to trachea issues and would get frustrated often because of her disability.
Strauss said one day she bought her a denture piece that could help people like Maryanne talk.
“She practiced making noises for a while and once she realized she could talk she ran to the phone,” Strauss said. “She ran to the phone to call her one and only daughter that lived in Florida and said ‘I love you.’”
AFF is an organization that gives back to those in need without asking for anything in return. Strauss said that the moments she gains in the relationships she builds with her clients is definitely making a difference in her life too.
–Video, text and images by Charlotte Reese and Trevor Carango