Seeking grand ideas, Awesome Pittsburgh has money for good ones

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On Thursday night, a group of Pittsburghers will gather together to celebrate their awesomeness.

A bit presumptuous?

Not in this case -- the occasion is the one-year anniversary of a group called Awesome Pittsburgh.

The purpose of the group -- the local chapter of a national Awesome movement -- is to give away $1,000 per month, no strings attached, to people with a good idea for how they'd use the money.

"It could be from individuals, schools, businesses, community organizations -- anything that adds a little more awesome to Pittsburgh," said Mike Capsambelis, one of the group's founders.

With nine others, Mr. Capsambelis, 40, of Hampton, serves as a trustee for Awesome Pittsburgh, meaning that he ponies up $100 per month and helps decide who to give it to every month. After hearing about chapters of the group in other cities -- it started in Boston in 2008 -- he and his friend Matt Gaston decided to try to launch it here.

They made a concerted effort to try to find a broad range of trustees, breaking out of just their own social and work circles. Mr. Capsambelis is a product manager at Google, and Mr. Gaston works at the Carnegie Mellon Software Engineering Institute.

"We really tried to attract a diverse group of trustees -- we reached out to the art community, the nonprofit community, and some other networks that we weren't necessarily part of," Mr. Capsambelis said.

He believes they've succeeded. Other trustees include Jeb Feldman, who owns the UnSmoke Systems art gallery in Braddock; David Thor, who works in real estate; and Steven Sokol, president of the World Affairs Council. Emily Keebler, chief of staff to city Councilman Patrick Dowd, serves as the group's "Dean of Awesome," helping with organization and scheduling.

Grant requests can be submitted online each month, through an application at the Awesome Foundation's website (

The group strives to award a variety of different organizations. In July, Awesome Pittsburgh gave $1,000 to Happy Smiles for Hilltop, a program that provides dental treatments and education to children in Pittsburgh's Hilltop neighborhoods, such as Beltzhoover, Knoxville and Allentown.

"It's been wonderful," said Amy Nevin, one of the pediatricians in charge of Happy Smiles for Hilltop. "The treatments cost $1 a piece, so $1,000 covers 1,000 kids."

In November, Awesome Pittsburgh's grant winner was Urban Stitches, a program launched by Clarissa School of Design alumna Tameka Reed after she discovered that many schools no longer teach sewing. She aims to start an eight-week class to teach teenagers to sew.

And in March, the group gave money to the Dickson Elementary School in Swissvale to start an outdoor art garden.

In some cases, the money from Awesome Pittsburgh served as seed money for the programs to expand with more funding. After getting the Awesome Pittsburgh grant, Happy Smiles for Hilltop received an additional gift of $500 after it was featured on a radio story on 90.5-FM WESA's "Essential Pittsburgh."

The Drift, a floating art platform from Carnegie Mellon University, received an additional grant from The Sprout Fund after its grant last January from Awesome Pittsburgh.

"A $1,000 grant might not really be enough to launch something big, but lots of times it's what they need to get the kick-start to make something happen," said Mr. Capsambelis.

His hope for Awesome Pittsburgh's second year is to get even more proposals for grants.

"We want to encourage people to submit more ideas," he said. "We tend to get a lot of the same proposals and we'd love to see a broader range."

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Anya Sostek: or 412-263-1308.


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