Losing a local icon: Rita Ungaro-Schiavone, the founder of Aid for Friends, died on March 22 of respiratory failure at her home in Winchester Park. She was 82. She is pictured with her husband of 62 years, Michael. PHOTO: AID FOR FRIENDS
Back in 1974, Rita Ungaro-Schiavone began providing meals for a small group of needy people in Frankford.
The effort grew into Aid for Friends, an agency that in its infancy was headquartered in Ungaro-Schiavone’s kitchen. Later, it moved to the Frankford YMCA, where she was a volunteer social worker, and in a trailer outside St. Jerome Church.
By 1989, the company had moved into what was then spacious quarters in the Holme Circle Shopping Center. By 2000, AFF had outgrown that space and purchased a 30,000-square-foot old bakery site at 12271 Townsend Road.
Over all those years, Aid for Friends has supplied more than 16 million meals to some 15,500 needy people. More than 50,000 volunteer cooks and visitors have assisted staff in the effort.
“Mom saw a problem and decided to fix it,” said her son, Vincent.
Rita Ungaro-Schiavone, the founder and longtime executive director of Aid for Friends, died on March 22 of respiratory failure at her home on Hargrave Street in Winchester Park. She was 82.
Ungaro-Schiavone is survived by her husband of 62 years, Michael; sons Michael (Barbara Luther), Vincent (Linda), Joseph (Ann) and Steven (Julie Spinrad); grandchildren Nicole Wenger (Joseph), Michael Joseph (Kristen Drennen), Matt, Michael Angelo III, Peter and Grace; great-grandchildren Joseph and Emmalynn Wenger; many cousins, nieces, nephews and friends; and many thousands of volunteers and client-friends of Aid for Friends.
The first of two viewings will take place on Friday at, appropriately, Aid for Friends.
“She dedicated her life to Aid for Friends and enjoyed every minute,” Vincent said. “When someone is in need, you help them. That’s what drove mom.”
Ungaro-Schiavone would speak at churches, synagogues and organizations to recruit volunteers. Staffers did the same.
As the founder once said, the mission of the agency is so powerful that people “line up to sign up” as volunteers. Many of them stay for decades.
When the Northeast Philadelphia Hall of Fame was choosing its inaugural class, Aid for Friends was on everybody’s ballot.
“When we started the Northeast Philadelphia Hall of Fame in 2009, we decided that, in addition to honoring individuals, we would establish an institutional category to honor worthy local organizations that had done great work in the Northeast,” said project director Jack McCarthy.
“Aid for Friends was at the top of the selection committee’s list as an especially worthy organization to be the inaugural institutional inductee. The story of how Rita Ungaro-Schiavone started in 1974 with an individual act of kindness of providing meals and companionship to one needy elderly person and from that developed Aid for Friends into a major organization that helps thousands of people annually is really compelling. It is remarkable what she accomplished and how many people she helped through her hard work and compassion.”
Aid for Friends provides food and friendship. The agency’s design features an angel with wings in the shape of a heart. One hand is reaching out to help while the other is holding a sheath of wheat.
Volunteers deliver seven frozen, home-cooked meals to isolated frail elderly and disabled homebound individuals in the Philadelphia area. They also stay for a friendly visit, an important part of Ungaro-Schiavone’s mission.
“Some food programs drop off, and you’re on your own. The whole purpose of Aid for Friends is aid and friends. Volunteers often stay an hour or more. They tend to be long-term relationships. The client friends become part of their family,” Vincent said.
“And it’s always free. If a neighbor is in need, you bring over food. It’s been free from the beginning.”
Ungaro-Schiavone was a devout Catholic, and Aid for Friends operated under the following passage from the Bible, John 3: 17–18: “If anyone has enough of this world’s goods and sees one of his brothers or sisters in need yet fails to help him, how can the love of God be living in him? My children, our love is not to be just words or mere talk but something real and active.”
The “hidden hungry,” as Ungar-Schiavone referred to her clients, also receive birthday cards and presents, poinsettias at Christmas and an annual needs assessment.
Ungaro-Schiavone gave all the credit to her staff, board members and volunteers.
At the same time, she was a workaholic. Over the years, she beat breast cancer and overcame double-knee replacement surgery. Even when immobile in the hospital, she was handing out her business card to fellow patients.
And in recent weeks, she was writing letters to promote an April 22 fundraising dinner that will take place at Aid for Friends. Proceeds will be going toward purchase of a van.
“We’re going to make that a tribute to mom,” Vincent said.
There have been many tributes to Ungaro-Schiavone over the years, including the agency being inducted into the Northeast Philadelphia Hall of Fame and her receiving the Papal Cross: Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice (for service to the community and church), bestowed in 1998 by Pope John Paul II.
Ungaro-Schiavone “retired” a decade ago, handing the reins to her son, Steven, but she continued to help the needy,
“She retired in ’07, but she never stopped. Her retirement meant she didn’t go to the office, but she worked seven days a week for Aid for Friends,” Vincent said. “It wasn’t a job to mom. It was her mission.” ••
A viewing will take place on Friday from 3 to 9 p.m. at Aid For Friends, 12271 Townsend Road. It will continue on Saturday from 9 to 11 a.m. at St. Jerome Roman Catholic Church, 8100 Colfax St., followed by her funeral Mass at 11. Interment will be at Resurrection Cemetery in Bensalem.
In lieu of flowers, contributions can be made to Aid for Friends’ Rita’s Fund at aidforfriends.org
All are invited to share their memories of Ungaro-Schiavone on the agency’s Facebook page.