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Squirrel Hill Volunteer Makes Sure Seniors Aren’t ‘Forgotten,’ Connects Them To Community

Courtesy of Rochel Tombosky
Rochel Tombosky founded the Squirrel Hill nonprofit Giving it Forward Together in 2015.

Rochel Tombosky was born in California, but she and her parents moved to Squirrel Hill to become a part of the Jewish community there.

“They came here for the schooling," Tombosky said. "I grew up here, went to the Yeshiva [School], and got married, and I’m here now. I’m a mother of eight, the oldest being 20 -- turning 21 -- and the youngest is three.”

Despite the busy home life, since June of 2015, Tombosky has found the time to run the nonprofit group Giving It Forward Together, or GIFT. The organization engages seniors who are homebound or living in a senior community by providing them with opportunities to give back to their own neighborhoods.

90 Neighborhoods, 90 Good Stories is a weekly series celebrating people who make the place they live a better place to live.

Tombosky said GIFT’s programs tap into seniors’ abilities to stay active in the community.

"So, there’s tons -- and thankfully, we need that -- tons of agencies capitalizing on what seniors can’t do, but is there anyone focusing on what seniors can still do?” Tombosky said.

That can be anything from filling backpacks with school supplies for disadvantaged children to preparing holiday meals for other seniors. GIFT also has a program in which seniors help shelter pets acclimate to human contact.

GIFT’s "home base" of Squirrel Hill has a particularly large senior population. First of all, it’s a big place, covering almost 4 square miles of the East End. With a population of more than 26,000, about one in 12 Pittsburghers hails from the neighborhood. And as of the 2010 Census, about 35 percent of Squirrel Hill residents were over the age of 60.

But Tombosky said there’s plenty of need for engaging the elderly in other areas, too, so she’s taken GIFT programs to Rankin, Braddock, Oakland, the South Side and other neighborhoods. 

“When we’re dealing with our elderly community, the feeling of loneliness hits everybody," Tombosky said, "meaning that even if you’re wealthy, or even if you’re poor, when you’re a homebound senior, it doesn’t matter what you have in your bank.”

Calling seniors "the forgotten demographic," Tombosky said she thinks ageism is a problem entrenched in American culture. To help change attitudes, she’s launching a new program in which college-age volunteers will visit homebound seniors. It’s called “Just Say Shalom.”

“If I can work now with college-age students that, when they get older, and they’re the ones giving grant money and giving funding, they’re going to remember their experience -- that these are real people that are the ones that actually laid out where we are today," Tombosky said. "They’re the ones that did all the hard work so we’re where we are today. Shouldn’t we be giving them thanks?”