The scale of the problems facing the world — poverty, hunger, conflict, climate change — can be daunting, even demoralizing. It’s easy to slip into apathy, thinking nothing you do could have an impact.
Sometimes, though, the answer is to think smaller — perhaps looking at something in a different way, seeing value where others see trash, or nothing at all.
Here are three Pittsburgh-based organizations that are taking on small-scale problems, and having a big impact:
No Crayon Left Behind
Writing for television and movies isn’t a job you give up easily.
That was Emily Skopov’s main gig, until recently. She wrote for beloved cult sci-fi shows like “Xena: Warrior Princess” and “Farscape,” specializing in strong, complex female characters. She relished the raucous give-and-take of the writer’s room in L.A., and kept doing it after moving to Pittsburgh in 2010.
Most people wouldn’t give this up for a box of crayons. Or even a million boxes of crayons. However, the night of her son’s 7th birthday at Red Robin in Cranberry, a box of crayons changed her life.
“My son didn’t use the crayons he was given, and the waiter said, ‘No, we don’t take them back,’” says Skopov. “I realized all these new crayons — they only give out new crayons — they’re getting rid of them. In a few minutes, I said, ‘Well, I’m sure I can find places who can use them.’ I asked the restaurant manager, ‘If I can find places who will take them, will you set them aside?’”
Once she committed to the idea, she found it hard to stop. Restaurants saw only garbage, but she saw something valuable.
She started No Crayon Left Behind, which has “rescued” millions of crayons from the landfill in a few short years. They’re sent to more than 20 countries overseas, and all over the U.S.
Skopov has done most of the work herself, so far — with a little help.
“My kids were my first volunteers,” says Skopov. “Many evenings were spent sorting out broken and damaged ones, and putting them in rubber bands. Then, my daughter’s friends and her soccer and volleyball team [volunteered]. You don’t have to sell kids on this idea. The adults are harder, but kids get it right away.”
Not every restaurant liked the idea.
“I’ve had some horrid responses,” says Skopov. “I’m not asking for money or donations. I’m asking you to give me your trash. People said no, all the time. It was incredibly dispiriting. I’ve worked in restaurants, and I know the fast pace. When someone says, ‘Children are not our priority’ — I can’t even pretend to know what motivates them.”
Enough did get it, however. Eventually, after lots of long drives all over Western PA, word spread, and it took off. Skopov balanced writing and doing No Crayon Left Behind successfully for a while.
Then she decided to run for public office.
The problem was that she couldn’t do it all, and her kids wouldn’t let her quit No Crayon Left Behind. That left film and TV writing to get the ax.
No Crayon Left Behind was at the point where she needed to hire staff, and take the next step — perhaps even collecting crayons all over the U.S., instead of just Western PA.
“Any place that’s ever called us, we’ve literally never said no,” says Skopov. “We don’t even question whether you really need them or not. If you take the trouble to find us, you really are watching every dollar. If you take the time to ask for us, you need them. That’s all the vetting we do.”
Off The Floor
One of the hardest things to get rid of is furniture. Used furniture can be difficult to sell, or even throw away.
But a small North Side-based nonprofit called Off The Floor, gets furniture (literally) off the floors of people who don’t need it any longer, and onto the floors of people who do.
“We help a lot of folks who have recently transitioned from a housing crisis, or living on a couch,” says Angela Elliston, donation coordinator for Off The Floor Pittsburgh, the Furniture Bank of Southwest PA. “It’s really hard to get back into your own space if you’ve been homeless.
“There’s an emotional component to have items you can be proud of,” explains Elliston. “You can invite friends and family into your house and not be embarrassed.”
Off the Floor is run out of a small North Side warehouse, stuffed to the ceiling with tables, chairs, beds and dressers.
If you need to get rid of something, they’ll find a home for it — provided it’s in good shape. (They’re wary of mattresses, for example. Bedbugs could quickly wipe out most of their warehouse.)
You wouldn’t think that needing furniture would constitute an emergency, but Off The Floor often has to respond to crises.
“Remember when Midtown Towers [Downtown] caught fire?” says Elliston. “Everyone has been relocated to the South Hills. Red Cross refers to Catholic Charities, who refer to us. We’re out there two days a week. Most lost everything.”
They also help furnish homes for refugees, partnering with Jewish Family and Children’s Service and Northern Area Multi-Service Center.
“So far this year, we’ve assisted more than 325 families in need. I couldn’t tell you offhand how many donation pickups we’ve done, but we average about five a day.”
Giving it Forward Together
When people grow old, that doesn’t mean they stop wanting to contribute. It often just means it’s a little harder, but not impossible.
“They’re the throwaway community,” says Rochel Tombosky, of Giving It Forward Together (GIFT). “People think if they take, they can’t give. It’s a very negative feeling.”
Tombosky started GIFT to harness senior citizens’ own abilities, to help them stay active, help others, and to better connect them to their communities.
“Not only is GIFT finding ways for our senior population to thrive and give back to our community — through that, we’re combating this very stereotypical ageism that we have in our culture,” says Tombosky.
Tombosky and her husband used to own a caregiving agency in Squirrel Hill, which she credits with teaching them about the hardships senior citizens often go through. Loneliness, in particular, is a killer.
One of GIFT’s most popular service projects revolves around Thanksgiving.
“We have all these wonderful individuals sitting at home, alone, while the rest of the country is celebrating family,” says Tombosky. “Every year, we provide a Thanksgiving to-go kit [for them], packed by other elderly seniors in assisted living homes, through another GIFT program called Just Say Shalom. It has food — little pumpkin pies, squash, fresh applesauce … backscratchers, tissues, candles. Every year, it changes. Not only does it serve their basic needs, but it was something cute, something caring — ‘Someone noticed that I’m a person.’ Our volunteers even made a little turkey out of jellybeans.”
Another project brings college kids to visit with seniors. Instead of struggling to make small talk, they get to work on a project together.
That usually breaks the ice. By the time it’s over, they’re pretty good friends, she says.
“We partner with lots of nonprofits. We ask them, ‘What do you need help with?’ Say a camp for children grieving the loss of a parent says, ‘We need 300 necklaces made.’ College kids pick them up, bring them to the seniors, and work on them together.”
It often ends up benefiting both.
“The senior has a sense of purpose and meaning,” says Tombosky. “The college student wins because they’re also doing something meaningful, and have a chance to change the myths we have about aging.”