Twice in three years, the residents of Millvale found themselves in a deluge, first from Hurricane Ivan in 2004 and then from flash flooding in 2007. Each time, they came together to dig out and help each other recover.
Millvale native and resident Brian Wolovich, a sixth-grade teacher in the Quaker Valley School District, said the level of cooperation and resolve got him thinking.
"If so many people could come together in reaction to destruction, why couldn't we come together for proactive reasons?"
The project he had in mind was a community library -- Millvale has never had one -- that could function as a hub for other activity such as meetings, classes, tutoring and organizing. Furthermore, it could be built on the principles of sustainability with energy-efficient design and water management in mind.
Not that Mr. Wolovich knew anything about building libraries. When people ask how he got the project off the ground, he replies: "I looked for the book on how to start a library, but it was checked out."
But he had a finance degree from Lehigh University, two years in Americorps helping nonprofits in California, and a master's degree in elementary education from the University of Pittsburgh. So he put together a business plan; obtained nonprofit status through Risingsun.org, a tax-exempt fiscal sponsor that acts as a guardian of grants and donations for Pittsburgh projects; and then set out to raise money and rally the people and institutions of Millvale.
About five years and more than $500,000 later, the new library is on the verge of opening its doors on Grant Avenue in the heart of town. Many of Millvale's businesses, organizations and citizens have had a hand in developing the 2,500-square-foot space, from volunteer labor and fundraising to moving furniture and donating books. The former Millvale High School contributed sturdy wooden tables and chairs; the former Mount Alvernia High School, closed in 2011, donated other furnishings; and countless sources have given books in hard cover and paperback.
Presiding over it all like a conductor is Mr. Wolovich, 36, often seen on Grant Avenue during his non-teaching hours with a cell phone at his ear and notebook in hand. The former football player is easy to spot with his tall frame, shock of graying hair and ever-present good luck charm, a carved jade dragon, around his neck.
The building is hard to miss, with its bright yellow second floor and a street-level window painted over with flowers (a new facade is planned). There's also a sidewalk sculpture of a dog balancing books on his snout, created by local artist James Simon. The pooch's name, courtesy of a community contest, is Pages.
As the driving force behind the project, Mr. Wolovich has been named one of six finalists for the Jefferson Awards program's Most Outstanding Volunteer. The presentation ceremony will take place on April 29 at Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland. The winner will represent Western Pennsylvania at the national Jefferson Awards ceremony in Washington, D.C., this summer.
The Jefferson program is administered locally by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette with sponsorship by Highmark, BNY Mellon, The Pittsburgh Foundation and the Heinz Endowments.
Vantagen, a ParenteBeard Company, will donate $1,000 toward the library efforts on Mr. Wolovich's behalf.
He was nominated for the Jefferson Award by Gregg Dietz, who does prevention advocacy in the Shaler Area School District, where Millvale students attend. He met Mr. Wolovich when his students volunteered for a building rehab project, and Mr. Wolovich in turn let them use the empty shell for art auctions and musical events. Impressed by the teacher's generosity and energy, Mr. Dietz joined the library board, even though he lives in the West End.
"Brian is a great teacher and worker with a lot of terrific ideas and he's willing to get his hands dirty," Mr. Dietz said. "His consistency and commitment level are awe-inspiring.
"For one of our events in the building, he worked with us until 11 p.m. to get everything finished, and that was after teaching all day. I've seen him work with a volunteer group of 100 youths and inspire them all, keep them motivated and busy. He doesn't just get work out of them, he educates them about why this library and social justice are so important."
Mr. Wolovich says the credit really belongs to the countless people who have contributed to the project in one way or another.
"I'm just a conduit," he says. "This is as much a community movement as a center of knowledge."
When it opens in June (if all goes as planned), the library will loan out tools as well as books, and feature a barter board where people can trade goods and services.
It will also have a borough-paid director working 30 hours a week, which required a coup of sorts in local government. Millvale's elected officials were not supportive of the library, Mr. Wolovich said, so he and two other members of his board ran for borough council and won. The pro-library group is now a majority.
Behind the building is a large green space, formerly a gravel parking lot, transformed into something of an oasis, with community gardens, fruit trees, compost bin, playground and water garden. Rain barrels capture water from the downspouts and redirect it to the gardens. There's also a large deck built by the youth group of First United Church of Christ.
Mr. Wolovich spends about 20 hours a week on the library, closer to 60 hours per week in the summers. There's so much to be done -- working with building inspectors and contractors, digging gardens, directing volunteers. He's also an involved family man who relishes time with his wife, Mindy, and their 2-year-old son, Elijah.
The organization bought the library building, a former electronics repair shop, in 2009 for $59,000, financed by a Laurel Foundation grant, a musical fundraiser at Mr. Smalls, a 5K run sponsored by the Pitt chapter of Beta Alpha Psi, an honorary society for financial information students and a mortgage.
"We gutted the building to the studs and built it back up, partly to show that if you breathe new life into these old buildings they're fantastic," he said. "I've learned how to build, and we do everything possible with volunteers. What we don't do is anything that could cause fire, water damage or structural problems. For those things we hire the pros."
He also learned how to write grants with assistance from the Forbes Funds, resulting in sizable grants from the Grable, Laurel and Pittsburgh foundations, as well as the Portiuncula Foundation of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities in Millvale.
Beyond grants and fundraising, he knew the project would need a steady source of income. So the organization rehabbed two apartments above the library, with the rent covering mortgage, water bills and operational costs. It also purchased the building next door, which will be rented to another community nonprofit.
So far, the project has raised more than $445,000 in cash and $150,000 worth of materials. Just as important, it has attracted 50,000 hours of volunteer service by more than 1,000 people.
"Folks feel real ownership here," Mr. Wolovich said, standing in the library's one finished room, which has a framed period photo of Phillipine Johnston, "the only librarian in the history of Millvale High School," he said. "They can come in and say, 'I put up that wall' or 'I painted that room.' "
The library needs at least 6,000 books to qualify as a member of the statewide library network.
Donations have far exceeded that number, and volunteers have spent many hours culling the collection. No more books are being accepted now, but once the shelves are stocked, workers will determine where the holes are and begin seeking volumes to fill those needs.
The plan calls for 10 computers instead of reference books, plus sections for children, Millvale history, yearbooks, fiction and nonfiction. Pointing to a closed-off fireplace, Mr. Wolovich grinned and said, "We're going to put a banned books shelf in there. Fitting, don't you think?"
To open, the library still needs a sprinkler system, a new facade with glass windows and doors, and a vestibule. Then comes furniture placement, shelf stocking and cleaning.
"A lot of times you think the country is falling apart," Mr. Wolovich said. "But we are working with people of every race and religion from all over the world. It's reassuring that these little acts make a big difference for us understanding each other."
More information is available at www.millvalelibrary.org.
Sally Kalson: email@example.com or 412-263-1610. First Published April 21, 2013 4:00 AM