By Elizabeth Perry
Karen Onoffrey is a baker on a mission to honor her mother’s memory, one cookie tray at a time.
The mother of three sells holiday cookie trays out of her partner’s Kennedy Township home and donates the proceeds to UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh in her mother Sissy Dimun’s name.
Dimun, who lost her fight with cancer in July of 2021, instilled in her a love of baking.
“My memories with baking go all the way back to my gram, my mom,” Onoffrey said.
Onoffrey, 51, grew up in McKees Rocks and now lives in McDonald. For years she made cookie trays for friends and neighbors simply because she loved giving them as gifts. Occasionally, she would sell a few trays.
In November 2020, Onoffrey’s mom became sick. Initially, the illness was misdiagnosed but ultimately was found to be cancer. Her spine was compressed from a tumor, and she lost the ability to walk, but she still encouraged her daughter to continue the holiday baking tradition.
With her mother passing in July and Christmas 2021 quickly approaching, Onoffrey’s children asked if she would bake cookies that year. With the pain of her mom’s death still fresh, Onoffrey didn’t think she could manage.
“I broke down numerous times,” she said.
When Onoffrey wrote her mother’s obituary, an idea became clear. In lieu of flowers, her mother had wanted people to donate money to the UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. That’s when she decided to start her fundraiser.
“OK. I get it mom. I get it. You know what, I'm going to bake these cookies,” Onoffrey said.
Since her mother had donated to the Children’s Hospital every year, Onoffrey decided she’d continue the tradition for as long as she was able. Last year, she donated $700 in proceeds from selling her cookie trays. This year, the project was much larger, after she announced on Facebook her intention to give 100% of the proceeds to the hospital.
“I'm pretty much on track to triple the donation,” she said.
When Dimun was alive, she worked three jobs – at an optometrist's office in the day, with disabled adults at night and in between, watering plants for office buildings after closing time. Her daughter has the same intense work ethic, sometimes baking until 1 a.m. after working as a recording service specialist at a mortgage service.
Onoffrey’s three children, Cassie Barbin, 34, Shelby Onoffrey, 25 and Nate Onoffrey, 24, have warm memories of growing up baking with their grandmother and they are proud of what their mom is doing.
“She bakes everything, she orders everything, she shops for everything. You’d have thought she didn’t work. She has a full-time job and does all this,” Shelby said.
Shelby is floored by her mother’s generosity and said her mom does all of this herself, with an assist from boyfriend, Kennedy Township Police Officer, Tom Ficarri.
Onoffrey describes Ficarri, who resides in Kennedy, as a “huge help.” He has picked up supplies, prepared ingredients and delivered cookies for and with her.
“He teases me and tells me he’s my sous chef,” she said.
Ficarri joked she was the president of the endeavor, and he was just the employee. "I am more the support system."
Ficarri described Dimun as the type of person who would make a pie for every guest at Thanksgiving, and give people two days' worth of food to take home with them after every holiday.
“She was a beautiful, caring person, and I think a lot of that has rubbed off on Karen,” Ficarri said.
Onoffrey’s eldest daughter, Barbin, was impressed when her mother told her about the project for the first time.
“Wow, that’s a really selfless thing to do, and I knew her mom would be smiling down on her knowing she wanted to pay it forward to everybody,” Barbin said.
Barbin said she didn’t worry about her mother going overboard on baking, joking that her brother, Nate, still lives at home and can “rein” in their mom.
Nate said he doesn’t rein her in so much as give her space. The kitchen in the McDonald home is pretty small, and he knows she would rather be by herself when she’s baking, but he helps when he can.
His favorite memory of his grandmother was when she and her husband took him, his sisters and four cousins to Disneyland.
“I personally feel like my nanny, which is what I called her, would be happy. She had a special place in her heart for everyone, but especially kids,” Nate said.
The trays go for $50 for a 12-inch round container and $70 for a 16-inch round. Onoffrey estimates she puts between 75 to 85 items on the small tray and roughly 125 items on the large.
“I call them my cookie jigsaw puzzles,” she said.
Ficarri said he never attempts to arrange the trays himself when he’s helping out, because she would just rearrange them. "It's a work of art with her and I think it's a pride thing with her," he said.
“Honestly I think she finds it therapeutic,” Barbin said.
Onoffrey echoed a similar sentiment.
“This project right now is my grounding tool, it keeps me focused, it keeps my mind busy, because if you ever suffered grief it's a sneaky little thing.”