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Jefferson Awards: Mt. Lebanon family brightens neglected youths' lives

Thursday, January 15, 2004

By Marylynne Pitz, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Elizabeth and Larry Castonguay got a phone call as they were getting ready to sit down to Thanksgiving dinner with their three daughters. It was a young Marine they knew who was in town, on leave from his base in North Carolina. Soon, they were setting an extra place for him at the table.

The Castonguay family, from left, Brenda, Kate, Larry, Elizabeth and Laura, stand in front of "Sons of Abraham," a painting by Elizabeth that hangs in her gallery, Creation Art Studio, in Castle Shannon.(Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

"He called just as we were dishing up dinner. He had his whole dinner with us, so that was nice," Elizabeth Castonguay said.

The Marine, an amusing and captivating storyteller who came to dinner in his dress uniform, is just one of more than 100 young men associated with Academy House that the Castonguays have befriended in the past 13 years. Since 1990, the Mt. Lebanon family has volunteered at Academy House, a Mt. Lebanon duplex that is home to abused or neglected youngsters and run by Three Rivers Youth.

The organization was founded in 1880 to care for African-American children because they were usually not accepted into other group homes.

Three Rivers Youth operates five group homes for teenagers, a drop-in center for homeless youth in the Strip District, two shelters and a family preservation program.

The Castonguays and their daughters, Laura, Kate and Brenda, have a knack for connecting with the young men, brightening their dark moments and encouraging them to develop their talents.

"You just fall in love with these kids," Elizabeth said.

The family is among seven local recipients of the Jefferson Award for Public Service, considered the Nobel Prize of volunteering and given in 92 U.S. markets by the American Institute for Public Service. Here, the awards are sponsored by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Comcast and Eat 'n Park with help from the United Way.

During a Jan. 29 ceremony in Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland, the winners will receive medallions and $1,000 to give to their charities.

There's a good reason the Castonguays gravitated to Academy House.

"My dad was put in one of these homes with his brother," Larry said. "He was 15 or 16."

Leo Castonguay ran away from a foster home outside of Boston, where his mother had abandoned him and his brother, Louis. Both brothers eventually joined the military. Later, Leo started his own family and a successful church supply business on the East Coast.

"My dad became very family-oriented," his son recalled.

The Castonguays' work at Academy House goes far beyond a weekly visit. Two years ago, Elizabeth suggested to Peggy Harris, the chief executive officer of Three Rivers Youth, that the young men needed a wider variety of role models.

"She said, 'Peggy, I'm concerned that these boys are mostly influenced by careers in athletics and music,' " Harris said.


This is the last of seven profiles of Jefferson Award winners.

Previous articles

Joan Levy: She helps create safe place for kids in courthouses (1/14/04)

Larry D. Davis: His fathering instincts set a precedent (1/13/04)

Alice Kulikowski: Ex-nun brings discipline, heart to construction projects (1/10/04)

Dr. Randall Kolb: Tending to homeless is rewarding to doctor (1/8/04)

Terri Watson: Hard-working volunteer isn't slowed by disability (1/7/04)

Holly McGraw: Her creative ways made Duquesne students achieve (1/6/04)

The 2003 Jefferson Awards: Seven winners honored for their public service (1/4/04)

In the fall of 2001, with the help of a Three Rivers Youth staff member, Elizabeth began a lecture series for all of the young men and women who live in Three Rivers Youth facilities.

The speakers included Rod Doss, editor and publisher of the New Pittsburgh Courier; Lee Hipps, executive vice president and chief operating officer for the Urban League of Pittsburgh; Clara Fisher, a great-great-great-granddaughter of Thomas Jefferson; several young African-American lawyers; Diane Mitchum, a conciliation specialist from the U.S. Department of Justice in Philadelphia; and an African-American woman who had lost her eyesight in high school but earned a college degree.

Before each lecture, Fisher prepared a meal for 60 people in her home and served it at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the South Hills in Mt. Lebanon, where the series was held.

"We need to start that up again. It was a good program," Elizabeth said, adding that the series ended when the Three Rivers Youth staff member who worked on it left.

Ron Shane, a resident counselor at Academy House for two years, said Elizabeth remembers the residents' birthdays and is a regular presence in their lives.

"She comes over to talk to them. She'll take them to Dairy Queen, to lunch, to church. She has us over at her house for dinner. In the summertime, she'd have us over for a cookout," Shane said.

Each summer, the Castonguays accompany the young men on a trip to Windy Ridge, a 300-acre retreat in Greene County, for a weekend in the country.

"These are all black boys living in a white neighborhood. It touches their heart to know that there are people who really care," Shane added.

The Castonguays have a gift, Harris said.

"You have to be a special kind of person to have a child like this start talking to you and open up to you. These kids have learned to distrust adults. Adults have failed them, starting with the adults in their own families. Adults have done abuse and made promises that weren't kept," Harris said.

A whole family of volunteers is more than unusual.

"I think it's unheard of. That's the thing that stands out -- that a whole family would be involved and for such a long time," Harris said.

The Castonguays serve as an extended family for the young men as well as a sounding board.

"We're an outlet for them, an extra set of ears," said Larry Castonguay, who works at Oxford Development.

When the family became regular volunteers at Academy House, the Castonguays' three daughters were young -- Brenda was about to turn 3, Kate was about 6 and Laura was about 10.

"They took to us because we were so little. They made us laugh," said Kate, now 18 and a freshman at the University of Pittsburgh.

"They were welcoming us into their home. They were like big brothers," said Laura, who works as a child development specialist at Bradley Center in the South Hills.

When the family began volunteering at Academy House, Elizabeth recalled, "It was very emotional. It was very hard to leave because we wanted to take everybody home."

The Castonguays, Shane said, are, "what most people should be. They don't just talk the talk, they walk it. They're always there to help people. They're always there to give of themselves."

Three Rivers Youth can be contacted at 412-766-2215.

Post-Gazette cultural arts writer Marylynne Pitz can be reached at or 412-263-1648.

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