By Elizabeth Perry
Editor’s note: We didn’t quite make it to the end of 2023 in order to initiate our Person of the Year voting process. Typically, we leave that nomination up to our readers, but since this is our final issue, we’ve decided to honor altruist (there’s a dictionary word for you, Sandy) and McKees Rocks mainstay Sandy Saban. Our internal votes were unanimous and since she has been nominated many times in previous years’ contests she is a shoo-in for the honor.
Sandy Saban has been a voice for the Rocks, promoting notable residents through her historical society window displays and various events around the community, preserving the history of the area digitally and physically while amplifying positive contributions made by people who hail from the Sto-Rox community.
“I can’t imagine why you’d want to write about me,” Saban said. “I know you’ve done Marlene
Banks, and all those people and they’ve done such good things. I just kind of schlep around.”
The work Sandy has done with the McKees Rocks Historical Society, the McKees Rocks Women’s Alliance, The McKees Rocks Events Committee and the Kennedy Township Garden Club is more than just “schlepping around.” Saban helped found the Jingle Bell Rocks celebration and the community flea market that raised money for students at Sto-Rox.
In the past month alone, she hosted a family gathering with the purpose of compiling genealogy records together, helped to organize a Trunk or Treat with the McKees Rocks Events Committee and put together a fundraiser for the Kennedy Garden Club.
Sandy has lived in McKees Rocks for her whole life, except for two years when she lived in Alexandria, Virginia, when her husband was in the military. She studied biology in the 1970s and graduated from Thomas Jefferson University with a degree in cytology.
Sandy used a microscope to diagnose cancer cells.
“I miss my microscope,” Sandy said.
With UPMC Passavant’s World Health Mission, she went on several humanitarian trips to the city of Jos in Nigeria throughout the 1990s. Sandy taught nurses there how to perform pap smears, and her fellow staff members focused on other elements of women’s health like mammograms. She went on three of these trips. The final time, her hotel was evacuated at midnight because extremists with machetes had slaughtered staff at the hospital where she’d been volunteering.
In 2007, she was the founding member along with Victoria Batcha of the historical society at
the urging of Taris Vrcek, the head of the McKees Rocks Community Development Corporation.
“I had been working with him to manage his website for a while,” Sandy said. “I’m into a lot of stuff so people tend to find me.”
She retired from cytology in 2013 and has dedicated the majority of her time to her volunteer pursuits.
The accomplishment she’s most proud of is the continued existence of the historical society.
There are 23 members of the society, though neighbors Saban and Batcha still do the majority of record-keeping and fundraising.
“With the historical society, it’s me and Vicki sitting at this table every morning,” Saban said.
Saban said it’s hard to get people to volunteer.
“That being said, there’s a lot of people in McKees Rocks who are doing a lot of good things that nobody ever knows about. So I don’t mean to sound bad that people aren’t helping,” Saban added, softly, “but people aren’t helping.”
She is deeply invested in preserving the culture of McKees Rocks. Saban said the beautiful churches built by immigrants in the Sto-Rox area used bells, not only letting residents know what time it was but also of events in the neighborhood.
At 6 p.m., if the bells rang, people knew someone in the parish had died.
“They bring you back to mindfulness,” Saban said.
This shared experience reminded people they were part of a community and of their own mortality. The bells “changed the air.”
Saban said she’s trying to live in a way that pays off all her karma. On the day of our interview, Sandy was spending the afternoon with a friend who has dementia. Throughout our talk, the friend kept referencing a piece of paper with the day on it, and said, “It’s Wednesday.”
They spend most days together. Saban helps to make sure she is safe, and the friend helps with chores around her house. Saban has taken care of many people in her life, many at the end of their lives. She’s lost a spouse and a child, along with many, many friends. Saban talked about all the different friends who have given her the fairy decorations hidden around her home. Many of those friends are now gone. For someone who has dealt with profound loss both personally and within the community she loves, she’s realistic but not embittered.
“I grew up in the Rocks in a time when the Rocks was a great place to live and it’s hard for me sometimes to see what it has become, but I still have hope that it can come back to the way it was,” Saban said.