Woman drives effort to aid needy

DUNCANSVILLE – The orange sign on the door of the Alleghenies United Cerebral Palsy Building stood out on this bright wintry Saturday morning in January.

It said simply, “Sale: 100 percent of the proceeds go to feeding the needy.”

Inside the building people were milling around, slowly moving from table to table, examining diverse items such as baby seats, automobile floor mats, cosmetics, picture frames, photo albums, children’s toys and air mattresses – all at bargain prices.

Jeff Snyder of Hollidaysburg is one of those who regularly attends the monthly sales of a group known as the Mobile Hope Unit of Pennsylvania, a subdivision of God’s Connection Transition from Gaithersburg, Md.

“They got a lot of good deals,” Snyder said. “It’s worth coming in. They have good prices, and it’s for a good cause.”

The names Mobile Hope Unit or God’s Connection belie what is really happening in the building.

It is not a corporate or religious thing as much as a group of people who have found joy in helping others, and that’s what makes it unique.

The people who sponsor the sale are working to help the needy in Blair, Cambria and Bedford County.

Led by Ginny Helsel, a registered nurse who lives in Hollidaysburg, the fledgling group has been providing meals for hundreds of needy families, helping to put together trailer loads of goods for victims of Hurricane Sandy, aiding individual families in need of not only food, but furniture, clothes and any other items, and supplying local shelters with leftover food.

Recently Helsel, who works in the Recovery and Holding Room at Altoona Regional Health Systems, got together with a few of her helpers. There was her niece Tammy Rhoades, a social worker with Alleghenies United Cerebral Palsy, Lynn Plowman, an employee of the Van Zandt Veterans Hospital, and Susan Shaw, an employee in the Office of the Blair County Prothonotary.

Helsel has been a nurse for 26 years, but when her sister, Mary Motchenbaugh of Loretto, died in March 2009, Helsel took stock of her life.

She and her husband, Bill, had raised three boys and had a good life on Garber Street in Hollidaysburg, a pleasant neighborhood, yet as she went to her sister’s funeral and saw all the people there she realized what a special person her sister was.

“I felt like I wasn’t doing anything in my life,” she said.

Helsel said there was an empty feeling there, and she made a commitment to become more involved in helping others.

She had another sister in Gaithersburg, Md., Theresa Harvey.

Harvey and her husband, Arnold, a couple years before had launched a group called God’s Connection Transition Inc., a nonprofit group that developed a new model for raising money to provide food and just about every other type of item for the poor.

The Harveys would obtain products from the giant wholesale company, Costco, and would sell the items to raise money for food and other products to the needy.

Helsel decided to get involved in the program and in the past couple of years has developed a Blair County version.

Costco donates the products. The products that go to God’s Connection and now to Helsel’s small Pennsylvania group, Mobile Hope Unit, have been returned or have been pulled from the company’s shelves.

Helsel began with a small U-Haul, getting someone to bring items back from Maryland. They were stored in her three-car garage, awaiting the next sale.

Sales are scheduled around Helsel’s work schedule – on days she is not on call at the hospital.

The money she obtained was used to provide dinners for needy families at Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas.

While Helsel was carrying out her new mission in life of giving to others, a whole lot of other people caught her enthusiasm.

Shaw resides in Helsel’s neighborhood and was curious about the U-Haul and the small sales Helsel was conducting out of her garage.

Helsel asked Shaw if she needed anything from the garage, and the two began talking.

Shaw said she wanted to help.

Volunteer after volunteer has joined the effort, which includes unloading the truck from Maryland each month, transporting the goods to the location of the sale – the latest being in the United Cerebral Palsy Building, which has a large heated, well-lit and comfortable garage-type building.

As Easter approaches, food must be purchased, and then the dinners placed in boxes and distributed to a list of needy families that Helsel has comprised through word-of-mouth.

The news of the sales are typically spread person-to-person, although Shaw has been given the responsibility of calling a list of potential customers just before each sale.

Some people tell Helsel what they need and she puts their names on a list. If a person needs an air mattress, for instance, and the load of goods from Costco’s includes an air mattress, that person is informed.

Shaw said she has five pages of names to call before the Feb. 23 sale scheduled for the United Cerebral Palsy Building.

She called what is happening “amazing” because of all the volunteers who have come forth, possibly as many as 40.

“We all work full-time,” Shaw said. “This is our side thing.”

Shaw also calls Helsel “amazing” because of all the work she puts in after a long shift at the hospital.

“She’s a very good-hearted woman,” Shaw said. “This is in her heart – a heart of gold.”

Rhoades, Helsel’s niece, got involved in the effort because she is a social worker and this for her was just one more way she could help people in need, and she makes no bones about it: There is a lot of need in this area.

“The need never stops,” she said.

Helsel tells of the family that had only an empty trailer but nothing inside. Helsel was determined to find items for the trailer and particularly a bed for the little boy in the family. She was successful.

Plowman became a volunteer when she attended one of Helsel’s sales.

The recent destruction by Hurricane Sandy showed that, like Helsel and her group, there are others in this area who, as volunteers, give a great deal of their time just helping people. They don’t seek publicity, but they are always willing to help if it’s for the needy.

Sherry Clawson, who manages the Ace Hardware Store in Ebensburg, said she knows Helsel, and she said she put out signs that the store was collecting goods to take to the stricken East Coast following Sandy. She also put out a collection box in her store.

That effort was started by Vincent Terrizzi of the Starfire Corp. in Ebensburg. As retired teacher Stan Ambroe of Dunlo told the story, Terrizzi, who had a friend in Long Island, said last Nov. 7, “We need to do something.”

What the group did was establish collection centers at churches and places like Ace Hardware, and within days, the items filled two trucks.

Helsel took loads of items to Ace Hardware and the trucks went to Lindenhurst, Long Island, an area where the people were in need of aid.