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Pens Foundation Gives Back to Local Charities Through 50-50 Raffle

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins

When a fan walks into CONSOL Energy Center for a Penguins game and purchases any number of tickets for the 50/50 Raffle from one of the kiosks or volunteers roaming the concourses, they’re giving back to the community in so many ways they may not be aware of.

The Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation, which runs the program, uses the proceeds to fund grants for local charities. And after the Pens’ championship-winning season, they’re able to help these charities out more than ever.

“Here’s the impact of the Stanley Cup,” said Dave Soltesz, President of the Pittsburgh Penguins Foundation. “Last year, we went one round of the playoffs, raised $750,000 and affected about 75 organizations. This year, we raised $1.1 million and affected about 106 organizations.”

Those hundred-plus organizations are unique because they’re not the major ones that the Foundation is associated with, like the American Heart Association. They’re also not any of the signature programs associated with the franchise, like Sidney Crosby’s Little Penguins Learn to Play Hockey Program, which the Foundation donates $75,000 to each season.

All of those are funded through other coffers. The organizations that apply for grants to get funding from the 50-50 Raffle are all smaller organizations that are hugely impacted by the funds they receive.

“These are middle-of-the-road, grassroots organizations where this donation that we make to them is very, very significant and grows their programs,” Soltesz said. “We do so much in hockey. The idea is we continue to do things in hockey from the 50-50, but here’s the things in the community that are important to us.”

One example of an organization discovered through the 50-50 Raffle is a program called Cribs for Kids, which the Foundation was just introduced to this past year. Judy Bannon founded the program after doing some research on some sudden infant deaths and finding out the mortality rate in Allegheny County is fairly high, a part of it being kids not having proper beds.

“When you leave the hospital, if you don’t have someplace for your kid to sleep, you don’t want them sleeping on the couch or in a bed,” Soltesz said. “They actually give you a pack n’ play free. The cool part about this program that people don’t understand is this thing was born in Pittsburgh and now it’s providing the whole Eastern seaboard with cribs now. They get a call from Florida or elsewhere and they’ll send a thousand of these cribs. So here’s a program that very few people know about that was born in Pittsburgh and it’s on the whole Eastern seaboard.”

During a three-week period in January, the organizations who went through the grant process and were chosen to receive funds visit the Foundation’s offices to receive their checks. But the amazing part is that it doesn’t stop once the hands are shaken and the photo is taken. Soltesz uses the opportunity to speak with the people visiting the offices, where he asks them to tell him more about their organizations.

One recent conversation that stands out to him is when a representative from the Friendship Circle of Pittsburgh, which was established in Squirrel Hill back in 2006, came to receive a check that would help them with the educational center they were creating that would be housed in the building that used to be Gullifty’s.

“I said, ‘So help me understand, what are you doing there? Do you have any electronic devices, iPads or Kindles?’ He said ‘No, we only have a couple,’” Soltesz said. At that point, he paused before gesturing over to a wall lined with boxes.

“These are all Kindles, which are from our Tablets in Education program,” Soltesz said. “It’s almost like, when they come in here, I see how passionate they are about their cause. I see who comes in from your organization. It’s almost like an interview process. How can I get more involved? How can I take a partner that I have who has funds available and maybe get you more money to expand what you’re trying to do?”

It becomes an auditioning process of sorts. For example, Dr. Kim Blair came in to receive a check for her organization and the Foundation could see the passion and interest from her group, so they began discussing a program that would create Chill Out Zones for at-risk kids ages 4-9.

Right now, a prototype of the 8-foot tall structure, which is almost like a timeout zone for kids, is currently in place at Edgewood Primary School thanks to the Foundation.

“What happened is we’re sitting here looking for that signature,” Soltesz said. “You look at the Mario Lemieux Foundation and they have the Austin’s Playrooms. The idea of this concept is what if you can start building these Chill Out Zones for at-risk kids and parents, what if we could build these and had six, seven, eight, nine of these? This is a prototype so now we’re developing it, testing it and they’re unbelievably successful.”

And it all started with one conversation that began because of the 50-50 Raffle.

“This was found by presenting a $10,000 check to support an existing program, we were very impressed and all of a sudden we started talking and her eyes lit up when we said ‘What could you envision, could we do another one?’” Soltesz said.

The educational world in particular is very important to the Foundation, as it coincides with their mission – which is to actively promote physical well-being, encourage teamwork, stress the value of education and provide essential life skills to young people in the community through youth hockey and other activities.

Everything starts in the Allegheny County Intermediate Unit (AIU). Some of the money the Foundation gets from the 50-50 has put Kindles and athletic equipment into Elementary schools. It also helped them find programs like Attack Theater, a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) initiative that gets kids up and moving through the arts; and an app called Onder, which helps children with autism.

“It cost us about $150 a license (for Onder) and we bought over 450 licenses for them to use,” Soltesz said. “With that, we’re truly making an impact. We created the first of its kind STEM-lending library. The library has over 1,000 items which represent 25-30 different STEM programs. So if you’re a school district that can’t afford the broad purchase of classroom tools to support STEM learning, the lending library provides electronics, puzzlets to teach coding, robotics and much more, now you have the resources. Here’s how it works: the teacher comes in and they learn how to use the kits. When they leave the AIU, they take these kits back to school and teach the kids. After the multi week class sessions, they have the ability to return that kit and rotate through to the next STEM session. The program has been unbelievably successful.”

Education is also why the Foundation decided to help out SLB Radio Productions, which is a PBS

NewsHour Student Reporting Lab based out of the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. They use radio and audio to encourage, amplify, share and Archive the ideas, stories, and feelings of children, youth and families, many of whom are less privileged.

The Foundation was so impressed with the work they do – a lot of the interviews they do with the kids are picked up by NPR – that they found a way to double the donation.

“After picking them, we gave them $15,000 out of the grant process and then we took our good friends Rob & Cindy Citrone grant and provided another $15,000,” Soltesz said. “So we ended up giving them $30,000.”

Next year, the Foundation is challenging SLB Radio Productions to do even more – and that will help be made possible by the 50-50 Raffle.

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