For 18 Duquesne University students, a semester in Hazelwood was a learning curve like no other.
As they handed off the results of their service projects at a ceremony on Wednesday, Jessica Dzara thanked the gathering of people outside the YMCA for their help: "We've learned so much from you. We just hope you get half as much out of this as we did."
The Honors College devotes a semester every year to a neighborhood-based service project, and the students contribute their results as a gift to the neighborhood.
In getting to know the neighborhood, the students researched it and spent hours at a time for several weeks walking around, talking to merchants and preachers and people on the street, attending meetings and going to church.
In their class summaries, several wrote that the experience made them a little more worldly.
"This class has opened my eyes a lot more to the world around me that I normally don't see," said Kyle Wiltsey.
"I feel that I have a much greater awareness of the situations and conditions that disadvantaged people in poor communities have to deal with," wrote Spencer Heaps.
At the gathering, Mr. Heaps said the class saw many needs as they scoured the neighborhood.
"We noticed the vacant lots and houses and the lack of business investment and the lack of schools," he said. "There were areas of recreation but some of it was in bad shape, and there are places where garbage builds up and no trash cans." He said they considered plans to help solve a number of these problems, "but the main concern at all our meetings with the community was about youth."
They culled all their ideas and fixed on two: an outdoor "classroom" for a variety of community uses and aid to Amachi, an organization that pairs children of incarcerated parents with mentors, by recruiting some mentors in the neighborhood.
After searching anxiously for a location for the outdoor "classroom," they found a receptive audience in the YMCA's branch manager Tendai Matambanadzo.
The YMCA is undertaking a garden on a lot behind the building and can use the benches and lectern the students built as a component of its after-school and summer classes, involving children in learning about and being part of the food production, said Mr. Matambanadzo.
"We want to include the community in the garden and use the food in our kitchen," he said. The YMCA serves a hot lunch every day to clients of the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. "Instead of using canned tomatoes, we can use our own tomatoes."
Each student spoke briefly about the class project, how it evolved and what they learned.
They raised $500 by holding 50-50 raffles, selling hot dogs and accepting straight donations. "We were able to reduce the cost by getting our tools donated," said Will Wighton.
"One major challenge was that we underestimated the time and energy it takes to be a mentor," said Camille O'Connor. The students talked to more than 100 people and handed out 50 mentorship applications, but the pitch fell flat on cold-call visits. It took several Sundays at church services in the neighborhood to make progress. The students finished with four confirmed mentors and 20 "likely candidates," said Justin Delic.
The Rev. Tim Smith of the Keystone Church and the Center of Life has for several years been part of a Hazelwood-Duquesne University partnership of members who meet regularly. "We lack resources in Hazelwood," he said, "and this gives us access to more people who can help us do what we want to do."
As simple as the outdoor classroom is, he said, it has powerful application. "We can replicate it in different places, say for block clubs and other groups" to meet more visibly. "It could become a sort of theme for Hazelwood."
Evan Stoddard, associate dean of the McAnulty College and Graduate School of Liberal Arts, said he starts every service semester by asking his students "to imagine they are a consulting group, to learn about the community and its needs and ways they can help people who are trying to make changes in their neighborhood."
Hazelwood's reception was so positive, he said, "We might do it there again next year."
Diana Nelson Jones: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at post-gazette.com/localnews.