New playhouse big success at Lower Burrell’s TryLife Center |
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TryLife Center executive director Vera Marelli in front of the new life-sized indoor playhouse at the pregnancy and parenting center in Lower Burrell on Monday, June 15, 2015.

Babies don’t come with instruction manuals — but most new parents wish they did.

Since 1997, nonprofit TryLife Center in Lower Burrell has been a community resource for many who had nowhere else to turn.

TryLife serves clients from four counties — Westmoreland, Armstrong, Allegheny and Butler. In its annual report, the group says its “top priority remains saving the lives of unborn babies and then educating their moms and dads as to how to make healthy and wise decisions regarding childrearing and day-to-day living.”

“We offer nine counseling rooms along with our 30-plus team of volunteers so we can help any client with their individualized needs,” says Mary Ann Miller, who is on the group’s advisory board.

TryLife provides assistance to pregnant women, families and single mothers and fathers raising their kids from birth to age 5 when they “graduate.”

Recently, TryLife added Lois’ Cottage, a deluxe playhouse created especially for its clients and their children.

Named in honor of Lois Weidner, a founding board member and part-time volunteer, the 240-square-foot playhouse is like stepping into “Santa’s workshop,” Miller says.

“Tiny tots busy themselves like little elves, playing with toys, reading and more, all under the watchful eye of a TLC staffer,” Miller says.

Lois’ Cottage, which was fully funded through the Richard King Mellon Foundation, is the focal point of the client welcome area and has been an overwhelming success.

“There’s fun waiting to happen everywhere you look,” executive director Vera Marelli says. “There are interactive walls inside including a toss and throw, a big chalkboard, a Lego wall, puzzles, games and hide-and-seek memory boxes.”

While the children play, their parents participate in various parenting workshops.

“We are here to help moms and dads be the best parent they can be,” Marelli says. “Everything is at no cost, but nothing is free.”

Clients “learn and earn” so-called “Baby Bucks,” which can be redeemed by the parents while they shop the spacious, well-stocked “Baby Boutique” for children’s clothes, cribs, formula, toys and other essential necessities.

Chartia Blackwell has attended TryLife for more than a year with her two sons Te-Jon and John in tow. A single mom residing in New Kensington, Blackwell attends the weekly Bible study offered and has enrolled in the financial budgeting class.

“My boys love the awesome giant house,” Blackwell says. “Te-Jon just loves going and really enjoys the crafts and toys. The staff at TLC is very helpful and nice.”

More than 450 mothers and fathers were served last year, and 3,000 area public school students were reached with the group’s abstinence program dubbed “unExpected.”

“We offer this sexual integrity program free of charge to middle and high schools in Allegheny and Westmoreland counties,” Marelli says.

If TryLife has a poster-dad success story, it is Glen Vantryfle of Leechburg, a single dad with full custody of his son, Brentlei. Vantryfle has rebuilt a productive life for himself after being incarcerated for 11 years for “making a lot of bad decisions,” he says.

Vantryfle lost his stable job suddenly two years ago, and the financial rug was ripped out from under his feet.

“I had a decent life and then no job — TryLife really was a shoulder to lean on back then,” he says.

Currently employed at Chelsea Building Products and pursuing a degree in engineering, Vantryfle no longer depends on TryLife for basic material needs but certainly benefits from the social and supportive environment that exists when he walks through their doors.

“Glen is a leader in our center,” Marelli says. “I am so proud of him — he is doing a heck of a job raising his son. He even started a men’s group called Iron Men that meets here weekly.”

Vantryfle praises TryLife and especially Marelli.

“She is like the Yoda of TryLife,” Vantryfle says. “She is wonderfully amazing and always has a plan. I am financially and mentally stable now, and I love everyone there.”

Joyce Hanz is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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