On October 25, 2015, 32-year-old Wexford resident and North Allegheny graduate Michael Kovacic was running in the EQT Pittsburgh 10-Miler when he suddenly collapsed. Although medics tried to revive him, Kovacic passed away from cardiac arrythmia, leaving behind his widow, Traci, and two very young children. Knowing how very difficult those initial grieving months were, and with the support of family and a group of friends, Traci Kovacic started a charity called Angels By Your Side with the goal of helping others who are grieving the loss of loved ones accomplish day-to-day tasks.
North Hills Monthly (NHM): Can you tell us a little about your family and what happened?
Traci Kovacic (Kovacic): I grew up here in Wexford and went to North Allegheny. I married my good friend from high school, Michael Kovacic, and we moved back to Pittsburgh from Denver in 2011. I work with his father, Joe: we sell life insurance and do financial planning, which is ironic, seeing that I lost Michael so suddenly, and life insurance saved me and the children after his passing.
Mike passed away in 2015 after running the EQT race in Pittsburgh; his heart went into arrhythmia.
He was very healthy, he worked out all the time and had no underlying issues, which made everything more shocking and confusing.
NHM: How did you get by that first year?
Kovacic: Our group of friends from high school is extremely close. Throughout the years, we’ve lost a handful of friends; each time tragedy struck, our friends were there for each other. When Mike died, I had so much support from his family, my family and all of our friends. Everybody was there.
NHM: What is the mission of Angels by Your Side?
Kovacic: The mission is to help families navigate through the initial stages of grief by helping them with service projects that they may need. Up until recently, we were just been a group of friends who volunteered our time. We started Angels by Your Side in 2019, and it was officially recognized as a 501(c)(3) in 2020. Since then, we’ve been able to help close to a dozen families.
NHM: Why did you decide to start Angels By Your Side?
Kovacic: My family and I were attending a grief support group at the Caring Place in Warrendale, a bereavement center for children who have lost a parent. During sessions, I was hearing other widows talk about how overwhelming everything is now. Your partner is gone, and things you would do together just seem so daunting. It’s sad and it’s hard, and you’re just trying to navigate through your grief and get the day-to-day things done.
One woman said she was overwhelmed with yard work, and I said, ‘I’ll come over and help you.’ I realized it was a much bigger problem than weeding, so I called friends and we did an overhaul on her house. That felt really good to be able to help her.
Another one of our good friends and Mike’s college roommate, Joseph Guzzetti, passed away at just 24 years old. Each year, his family had a race to honor and remember him. After Mike died, we decided to do something in remembrance of both of them, and as we were talking about planning a celebration, we had the idea that we could do something more and turn this into a way to raise money and help other families who were dealing with this as well.
NHM: What are some of the services you offer to grieving families?
Kovacic: We’ve painted interiors of people’s homes and we’ve done landscaping work. There were two projects where we hung up Christmas lights to bring a little joy to these families during the holidays. We’ve also evolved to find different sorts of companies to help. We had a woman recently who needed to pack up her house, so we hired a professional organizer. We also got a landscaping company to help a widow get through the spring season.
NHM: How do you determine if you can help?
Kovacic: We’re a very small organization and have limited funds; we all have children and limited time, so sometimes we have to pick and choose what we can do. We look at every submission, and each situation is different; people will send us a list, and we choose what we can take off their plate. We can’t lay a new driveway, but we can help reach out to contractors. It’s really more about uplifting these families; helping out with a daunting task as opposed to a large home project.
The Christmas light project is very special to us. My friends did that for me, and I didn’t even ask them to. If they hadn’t done that for me, my kids wouldn’t have had a tree up or lights outside; it was too hard to do that.
NHM: Do applicants need to meet any financial criteria?
Kovacic: It’s not based on financial situations. Someone that lives in a $2 million dollar house can call us. It’s more about taking the stress off their plates. It’s unfortunate, but you’ll have people trying to take advantage and overcharge women who have lost their husbands. We provide all of our volunteer services for free, and if the job needs a professional, we do our best to help with expenses for the family.
NHM: How many volunteers work with the organization?
Kovacic: There are probably about 15 people in our group of friends who have all known each other since high school, and then about 15 other volunteers. We’re always building our list of licensed contractors to partner with us.
NHM: How do you get funding?
Kovacic: We accept donations on our website. Before COVID, we had a fundraiser with a basket raffle. It was a fun, family event and hopefully we will be able to do that again next year. We also hope we can hold our in-person fundraiser at Blueberry Hill Park next year, where the whole community will be invited. It will be a carnival held on Easter weekend.
NHM: Do your children get involved, too?
Kovacic: I’ve taken my kids to buy Christmas presents, so they understand that we are now helping out other families; they know that after what we went through, they are not the only ones that things like this happen to. I also want them to know that when these things happen, families should never feel like they have to go through it alone.
NHM: What is the main message you’d like people to know about Angels By Your Side?
Kovacic: That our main purpose is just to be able to help people get through the initial hard time. We‘ve been there, and we understand how hard it is. We want people to not be afraid to ask for help, no matter how big or how small the task.