Lincoln-Larimer activist works to keep her community safe
April 28, 2014 12:00 AM
KURT WEBER / POST-GAZETTE
Tracee Kirkland, volunteer and 2013 Jefferson Award winner.
By Clarece Polke / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
When Trevon Kirkland first started playing with a Lincoln-Larimer Youth Sports football team as a pre-teen, the field had no bleachers for its hundreds of spectators who turned out to watch them play on weekends. For his mother, Tracee Kirkland, that was unacceptable.
She spread the word of the sub-standard conditions of the field and petitioned the city of Pittsburgh for an upgrade. The city not only built bleachers for spectators but also a fence to barricade the crowd from getting onto the field.
Her service and outreach in the Lincoln-Larimer community has spanned decades. In 1996, she helped form the Concerned Citizens of Greater Pittsburgh, a community watch and outreach program. She was pregnant with Trevon at the time (he's now 18) and was worried about the future of the community he would be born into.
"I got tired of going to funerals," Ms. Kirkland said. "I lost a lot of childhood friends due to the gang violence happening everywhere around me. It really just wasn't safe."
Members of the program met individually with leaders of five of the local gangs and established "no-fighting zones" around areas such as schools, playgrounds and parks. Eventually it grew into a cease-fire and peace treaty signed by the rival gangs. Many of the gang members, she said, just needed opportunities for redemption and rehabilitation.
"A lot of the kids who were joining the gangs pretty much did so to stay alive," Ms. Kirkland said. "It was either join yourself or become targeted."
She worked with the Allegheny County court system to establish a community service program for some of the gang members and other kids in her neighborhood with criminal records that allowed them to make up their community service time by learning life skills such as construction, public speaking and resume building.
"I was a rough adolescent myself," she said. "I was not the perfect kid. I've been through a lot of things, so I'm able to relate with things these kids are going through."
Ms. Kirkland, now 37, became a teen mother at 19. She has struggled with homelessness and was a victim of sexual abuse. However, every step of the way, she said, there was someone there attempting to help her and guide her.
Because of her tireless community work she has been tapped as one of six finalists for the Most Outstanding Volunteer for the Jefferson Awards for Public Service for 2013. The winner will be announced at an awards ceremony on May 6 at Heinz Field. If chosen, she will represent Western Pennsylvania at the national Jefferson Awards presentation this summer in Washington, D.C.
The Jefferson Program is managed locally by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette with sponsorship by Highmark and BNY Mellon.
WOMEN of Southwestern Pa. will donate $1,000 to Concerned Citizens of Greater Pittsburgh on Ms. Kirkland's behalf.
Lynne Williams, a physician at Hilltop Community Center, met Ms. Kirkland in 2006 when they worked together at the East Liberty Family Health Care Center. She described Ms. Kirkland as a "phenomenal advocate" for a high-needs area with limited services and resources.
"I was always impressed at her ability to get at the real story with our patients instead of what they came in for," Dr. Williams said. "She's very good with high-risk families and being able to identify families' needs before they even mention it and direct them to the resources they need."
The two are part of the board for Jeremiah's Place, a crisis nursery that opened last week in the Kingsley Association in Larimer.
Ms. Kirkland helped initiate the idea for the nursery after a fire on Larimer Avenue killed five children who were home alone, several of whom were her relatives. The nursery will take in children up to age 6 for a maximum of four days while parents or guardians are dealing with a crisis, she said, to offer an alternative to leaving children unsupervised for extended periods of time.
"I think she's very quiet and very modest, but there's such a ripple effect from her of all the things she's done, that quiet work that brings things together," Dr. Williams said. "She's just really a very genuine individual who is making a difference in the lives of a lot of people."
Ms. Kirkland works as an registered nurse with the Child Advocacy Center at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, performing medical evaluations for children who may have been victims of physical or sexual abuse and neglect. She is also a trained doula and helped start the Birth Circle in East Liberty to help combat the high infant mortality rate in the area. Each year, she helps organize a community coat and toy drive through Toys for Tots.
She also serves as secretary for the 12th Ward Democratic Committee, whose outreach includes increasing voter registration and awareness, as well as hosting "Holding Our Leaders Accountable" meetings.
"I try to help people because someone helped me," she said. "I know what it's like to struggle. It's really just paying it forward. I just want my community to be the beautiful place it was when I grew up."
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