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Mister Rogers’ memory honored with 13th annual sweater drive: Pittsburgh charity aims to provide warm clothing to families in the region, Hurricane Sandy victims

By Lauren Dantella

Point Park News Service

Children from Martin Luther King pre-school and Pittsburgh’s Children’s Museum Head Start program filled the theater of Children’s Museum Thursday, Nov. 15,  as Mister Rogers’ deliveryman, Mr. McFeely, entertained the children with King Friday and Daniel the Tiger to kick off the 13th annual Mister Rogers Sweater Drive.

The sweater drive honors the memory of the late Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. The drive works with United Way of Allegheny County and Tri-State Presbyterian churches to distribute sweaters to families in the region. This year, excess sweaters will be taken to New York and New Jersey to aid victims of Hurricane Sandy as the weather changes.

The sweater drive began in 2000 as a way for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to celebrate their 32nd year on public television, said David Newell, known lovingly as TV’s Mr. McFeely on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Rogers wanted to do something to celebrate and give back to his community like he taught kids to do on the show, so they came up with the sweater drive, said Newell. The drive has been a tribute to Rogers since his 2003 death.

“I think it’s just a wonderful tribute to Fred because the sweater was him,” said Newell.

Newell makes appearances at community sweater drives across the country, traveling as far as Jacksonville, Florida. He has participated in 10 sweater drives this year.

The original sweater drive was based off a similar one sponsored by KRMA-TV in Denver. The drive collected 5,000 articles of clothing, said the original press release. The Mister Rogers Sweater Drive in Pittsburgh has collected 28,000 sweaters over 13 years and aims to accumulate about 1,000 sweaters per year.

The Pittsburgh charity benefits families in Southwestern Pennsylvania but the annual kick-off event also benefits children who participate.

During his appearance, Mr. McFeely brought out puppets King Friday and Daniel Striped Tiger and read books to the preschool children about his portrayed job as a deliveryman and the concept of giving. The children each put a sweater into a large bin meant to be delivered to families in need.

The Children’s Museum’s “YouthALIVE!” program, which consists of about 20 high school student volunteers, also plays a part in the charity every year by sorting and folding donated articles.

JuWanda Thurmond, the Youth Programs Manager at the museum, said one obstacle of organizing the donations has been space restrictions as the charity grew.

“I’ve seen it get much bigger,” said Thurmond. “Space is an issue… Some days we’ll have people call and say ‘We have three bags of sweaters,’ and then sometimes we’ll have someone call and say ‘We have a truckload.’”

Members of the program learn about Mr. Rogers’ legacy, giving, and some even learn folding, said Thurmond.

“Sometimes I get kids just throwing sweaters into bags,” said Thurmond. “So I get to give a little lesson on folding, but it’s worth it because they learned something.”

Gregg Hartung, Executive Director of Pittsburgh Presbytery, said this year excess sweaters will be sent to New York and New Jersey to help Hurricane Sandy victims as winter approaches. Donations are also sent to Light of Life homeless shelter, the Salvation Army Harbor Light Center, Pittsburgh YMCA’s, East Liberty Presbyterian Churches, and many other charities throughout the region.

Bill Schlageter, Director of Marketing, spearheaded the first Mister Rogers Sweater Drive. He said it was one of his first assignments at Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh and he’s been pleased with the outcome.

“The support has been terrific,” said Schlageter. “It’s a wonderful message we could send to and with families to other families in our community.”

Sweaters will be collected until December 16 in the Children’s Museum lobby.

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