Nicole Cleland had been in the hospital ever since she and her two daughters were involved in a horrific car accident in the beginning of December.
Cleland suffered a shattered pelvis when her car was struck head on by a drunk driver in the South Side of Pittsburgh – a crash that killed her daughter Lexa, 7, and caused Nicole to lose her unborn child. Nicole and her husband Mark’s one-year-old daughter, Kathleen, survived with minor injuries.
Nicole has progressed to doing some walking with a walker and a cane in the South Hills rehabilitation center where she is recovering, but hadn’t been able to leave the facility until Monday night.
And on her first day away from the center, Nicole and her family came to CONSOL Energy Center to attend a fundraiser organized by Mike and Christi Rupp to raise money for the Clelands.
“What an honor, that today is her first day out of the hospital and she came to meet everybody here,” Christi said.
Not only have the Clelands been dealing with unfathomable emotional trauma, but they have also been under significant financial strain. The family lost their only car in the crash, the hospital bills have been piling up and they are in danger of losing their home.
So the Rupps teamed with the Penguins to organize an autograph session that consisted of Brooks Orpik
and Kris Letang
and Pirates players Paul Maholm and Pedro Alvarez. The fundraiser lasted about two hours and the $35 wristbands required for admission sold out in less than an hour.
“I don’t think you need to be a parent to kind of think of what they’ve gone through,” Mike Rupp said. “I have three kids, and I can’t fathom it. So if this is something that can help alleviate a little bit of pressure in some areas so they can focus on doing what needs to be done and be there for one another, so be it. We just want to try to help any way we can.”
Christi first learned of the Clelands’ situation while watching television. A local news station did a piece on a Pittsburgh woman, Samantha Savoy, who organized a spaghetti dinner fundraiser to benefit the Clelands that drew more than 1,000 attendees.
“As I sat there and watched this woman do a spaghetti dinner and a thousand people showed up at this church, I thought, ‘Wow. If these people can get together and do this, then we can certainly do something here,’” Christi said. “And as I sat there and cried over the father and his story, I called Mike and I said, ‘We need to do something to help this family.’”
The rest was history.
Christi also called her friend Jessica Maholm, Paul Maholm’s wife, and asked for her help.
Both Jessica and Paul agreed it was a no-brainer to get involved.
“I don’t think you can ever put into words what the family’s going through,” Paul said. “Whenever Mike and Christi came up with the idea to do this and for us to come out for a couple hours and sign for the fans and for them to support the family, it’s easy. What they went through, nobody should have to go through. Hopefully we can help them out just a little bit to get through.”
The wristband sales procured $10,500 to help the Clelands. When Jeff Nobers, the vice president of marketing and public relations for 84 Lumber/Nemacolin Woodlands Resort heard of what the Rupps were doing, he pledged exactly half of the proceeds – $5,250 – to show his support to both the Clelands and the players for their proactive approach in helping out.
“It’s just amazing. It’s overwhelming,” Nicole said, who learned of Nobers’ donation after the session ended. “There’s not even enough words or enough ways to say thank you.”
“I think what spurred us was certainly a concern for the family and wanting to be able to help,” Nobers said.
“It’s as much to help the family as to recognize the efforts of those players and really, just to say we’re all fortunate to live in a city where the professional athletes, as Mike Rupp said, use their celebrity for the good as opposed to just their own personal things.”
Tina Vita and her husband Joe got a text from the Penguins informing them of the fundraiser. It was one of those things where they just couldn’t say no to coming out and showing their support.
“We have three children of our own and we couldn't imagine something like this happening. So we’re here to support the family,” Tina said.
Like Nobers, the Vitas are blown away by the players’ efforts to give back to their community.
“We were just talking about this last night, how wonderful it is what the players are doing,” Tina said. “Here, the players are really helping out the community. Honestly, you see them at Children’s Hospital with the kids – they’re always out there helping out. It means a lot. It does.”
Pittsburghers have kind demeanors and even kinder hearts. When a stranger asks for directions, a Pittsburgher won’t just tell them where to go – they’ll personally escort them to their destination. And the response from the community has been the one positive to come out of such a tragedy.
So while the fans were impressed with the players’ willingness to give back, the players and their wives felt the same way about the people who came out for the fundraiser.
“It’s been a great showing from the fans,” Mike said, with Christi adding, “We’ve been all over the country in different teams and lived in different cities. And I’ve never been to a city where people are just so welcoming and just so caring and so loving as they are here in Pittsburgh.”
The Clelands still have a long road to recovering from their terrible tragedy. But they’re slowly healing from their excruciating ordeal, and are grateful to have the community supporting them along the way.
“There’s no way to truly thank people for things like this,” Nicole said. “To say thank you is not enough, and all you can do is pay it forward. That’s all I can do and all I can think to do is try and think of ways to help other people.
“We’ll never get over the loss of Lexa, and when you talk about giving back, that’s what makes me want to give so much. She was such a giving and loving child, that you want to just follow in her footsteps. It’s hard to say as a parent that you want to follow in your daughter’s footsteps, but she just loved so much and so hard that you can’t help but want to do the same.”If you would like to help the Cleland family down their road to recovery, donations still can be made to the Cleland Family Trust, 1918 McCague St., Swissvale, PA 15218.