Rita Ungaro Schiavone, 82, of Northeast Philadelphia, a nonprofit founder who dedicated her life to helping the Philadelphia area's frail and forgotten, died Wednesday, March 22, of respiratory failure at home.
In 1974, Mrs. Schiavone established Aid For Friends, an organization that provided free meals – delivered by a volunteer - to isolated seniors and those who were disabled and homebound.
The idea for the weekly service was kindled when Mrs. Schiavone met an old woman in the Frankford section of Philadelphia who was hungry and alone, her family said.
"This lady fell through the cracks - she had no family, no food, no friends - and Mom was determined to do something about it," said her son Vincent J. Schiavone. "That night at dinner, Mom took tin foil and made a tray, and put in it a serving of food from our table for her new friend."
Mrs. Schiavone realized there were others who could benefit from seven homemade meals per week plus the social contact provided by a visitor. Each volunteer visitor was matched with the same recipient so that the two could spend time together and become friends.
"Mom was an amazing social entrepreneur before it was fashionable," her son said. "She was smart, driven, tenacious, demanding, and tireless."
To recruit volunteers for the project, Mrs. Schiavone spoke at churches, synagogues, and service organizations. "Just feed your new friend the same food you feed your family every night," she told prospective cooks. "Put the trays in your freezer and bring them to church, your synagogue or a social organization when you visit."
Another set of volunteers was responsible for picking up a week's supply of food and delivering it to recipients. Still another set worked in the nonprofit's warehouse at 12271 Townsend Rd.
Joe Gavaghan, a retired newspaper advertising salesman, said he had volunteered for the past 16 years in the nonprofit's warehouse, packing meals and filling the freezers that hold the meals. "She was a very caring person for those who needed help," he said of Mrs. Schiavone.
The organization's efforts enabled many recipients of the meals to remain in their homes "and live in relative dignity," her son said.
In the fiscal year ending July 31, 2016 alone, the nonprofit served 295,000 meals to 1,690 in need, working with $1.6 million worth of donated food and a budget of $897,750, according to figures he provided. During the same period, 14,000 volunteered their time and effort.
"Mom couldn't do it by herself and she knew that," her son said. "She got a lot of people who joined her, and they were good people."
Mrs. Schiavone received many awards, including the Papal Cross for service to the community and church bestowed in 1998 by His Holiness John Paul II.
Born in the Juniata section of Philadelphia, Mrs. Schiavone graduated from Frankford High School. She met her husband, Michael A. Schiavone, when both were enrolled at Temple University. She studied for two years, before settling in Northeast Philadelphia to start a family.
While her husband, a dentist, supported the family, Mrs. Schiavone reared the couple's four sons and began looking outside the family for ways she could help others. In 1966, she tested the waters by becoming a director of lay volunteers in the Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia. She started a food distribution program and was appointed by John Cardinal Krol to the board of the Cardinal's Commission on Human Relations.
Mrs. Schiavone retired seven years ago – she stopped going to the office - although she remained active behind the scenes until the week of her death. Her son Steven M. Schiavone, an attorney, replaces her as the director of Aid For Friends.
When not engaged in the nonprofit, Mrs. Schiavone pampered her golden retriever, Emmy, played the piano, and enjoyed the company of her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
In addition to her sons and husband of 62 years, she is survived by sons Dr. Michael A. II and Joseph J.; six grandchildren; two great-grandchildren; and nieces and nephews.
A viewing will be held from 3 to 9 p.m. Friday, March 31, at Aid For Friends, 12271 Townsend Rd., Philadelphia, and again from 9 to 11 a.m. Saturday, April 1, at St. Jerome's Church, 8100 Colfax St., Philadelphia. An 11 a.m. Funeral Mass Saturday at the church will be followed by burial in Resurrection Cemetery, Bensalem.