According to Vince Schiavone, his mother Rita Ungaro-Schiavone was quite the force to be reckoned with. Standing at 5 feet 2 (on a good day), she was chock full of energy, ambitious when it came to helping her Northeast community and, like many Italian moms, a darn good cook.
All of these traits were instrumental in helping her form in 1974 Aid for Friends, now known as Caring for Friends, a 501(c)(3) with one mission in mind — to provide food and friendship to the homebound, homeless and hungry throughout the Greater Philadelphia region.
“Mom always had time for others,” said Vince, who is now the CEO of the nonprofit.
With March being Women’s History Month, it’s the perfect time to reflect on the nearly 50-year legacy of Rita, who passed away in March 2017 at the age of 82.
She might be gone, but her work lives on through Caring for Friends, which currently serves thousands of homebound clients and distributes 12 million pounds of food each month, and has a network of over 10,000 volunteers and 200-plus food pantries.
The organization, headquartered at 12271 Townsend Road, has expanded from its humble beginnings to encompass the city’s surrounding counties. In its infancy, the agency was headquartered in Ungaro-Schiavone’s kitchen. Later, it moved to the Frankford YMCA 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.
For as long as Vince can remember, his mom was driven to assist those in need. He fondly remembers non-traditional family vacations that didn’t involve going to the beach or Disney World. One year, he, his parents and siblings traveled to Appalachia in West Virginia to paint houses for low-income residents with black lung disease.
Rita was employed by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia for five years, which is ultimately where the story of Caring for Friends began. She oversaw the launch of a food cupboard program and formed a strong network of community organizations. However, this wasn’t enough to feed all of her neighbors in need.
“She knew through her work that there were many people throughout the region who could not come into food cupboards, who could not come into food places like the Y in Frankford to see a social worker and get help,” said Vince.
This was when she reached out to a social worker friend at the Y, asking if they knew of anyone who was homebound and physically unable to stop by in person. It was recommended that Rita visit a Frankford woman named Minnie, who was elderly and not mobile. Rita was horrified at Minnie’s living conditions — the house was cold and filthy.
“Being an Italian mom, she said, ‘Let me get you a glass of water from the kitchen,’ ” said Vince.
Upon entering the kitchen, Rita discovered that Minnie’s refrigerator, freezer and cupboards were all completely empty. Rita returned home and informed her husband and four sons that, beginning that very night, she’d be making a tray of whatever homecooked meal was on the table for her new friend. Then, once a week, she delivered the trays to Minnie.
“She also looked for how many more Minnies were out there, and she found more than we could handle at our kitchen table every night,” said Vince.
Rita utilized her network of interfaith and multicultural groups to gather volunteers willing to help cook and deliver meals.
“We actually have at least two of the people who she asked that first week still delivering meals today,” said Vince. “It’s a beautiful thing. They are older than the people they serve, but they’re healthy and they’ve delivered meals to hundreds of people. They still care.”
This, Rita quickly discovered, also wasn’t enough to meet the need. She then spent each weekend speaking at churches, synagogues and community centers to discuss her mission and seek more assistance.
Her efforts slowly but surely grew from packaging that initial meal for Minnie at the Schiavone family table to the 30,000-square-foot warehouse on Townsend Road.
“The reason all this happened was because Rita was a force of nature. You couldn’t deny her,” said Vince. “If she wanted to speak and the pastor didn’t want her to speak, she would just call every week until they finally gave in.”
Even toward the end of her life, Rita remained committed to her work and did as much as she could remotely.
“Her viewing was in our warehouse because that’s what she would’ve wanted,” said Vince. “And it didn’t surprise anybody.”
In Vince’s opinion, there were other reasons why so many rallied behind his mom. Not only did she practice what she preached, she tapped into an innate human response — to provide food and friendship to those who don’t have it.
“It’s natural, it’s in each of us. If we have a family member who’s sick, grandmom’s not feeling well, a neighbor or friend and they need food, we bring them food. It’s what humans do,” he said. “And when people are hurting and alone, we visit them, right? So the idea of providing food and friendship is innate in us and she provided a mechanism that people could do it in their own community, at their own church.”
Vince, who boasts a strong background in entrepreneurship, has been by his mom’s side in her endeavors since childhood. Now, he’s working to ensure her work lives on for another 49 years.
Not only is Caring for Friends continuing her vision that “no one should be hungry or alone in a world of caring people,” it’s promoting the idea that everybody, including children, can get involved. Caring for Friends is, said Vince, one of the few nonprofits that allows parents and children to volunteer together.
“One thing I know she would be thrilled with is how many people are involved, how many women like her were inspired by what she did, to teach her kids and to help others in the community. I think it’s a beautiful thing,” said Vince. “She was one of the earliest entrepreneurs with a nonprofit that wanted to go beyond what she did to harness the power of a community to make a difference. Mom would want people to know that every woman and every girl can make a difference.” ••