Allegheny County KEYS opens pathway to community service

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Parks help bring people together, Jeremy Martin says.

That's why he worked with the neighborhood advisory council in Pittsburgh's Perry South community to plan and carry out a "Weed 'n' Feed" service project Saturday.

About 50 people turned out at 8 a.m. to clear pesky knotweed at Fowler Park on the North Side. Following a potluck picnic at noon, participants heard a free concert by local musicians. Entertainers included Joy Ike, Ranika Sanchez Chaney, Bridgette Perdue and Mark Williams.

Those helping out with the park clean-up included what are called "young leaders in training." They are high school students who work part time with the Pittsburgh Project's after-school and summer programs.

The park effort -- planned with the guidance of local residents and involving young people from the neighborhood -- is a good example of the kind of projects members of Allegheny County's KEYS Service Corps undertake, Helen Wachter said. She is director of the KEYS program, which is run through the county's Department of Human Services.

KEYS is an acronym for "Knowledge to Empower Youth to Success." The county effort is part of the AmeriCorps national service program.

Mr. Martin, 21, is among more than 130 members working on KEYS assignments across the county. Members are assigned to host organizations, primarily at schools and community agencies.

"We're cleaning up the park as part of an effort to bring the Perry South community together," he said. The effort began by talking with neighbors about what they wanted to see in their neighborhood, he said. The idea is that local people are best able to make decisions and plan events for themselves, he said.

There is no typical Service Corps member, Ms. Wachter said. While most are college age, the oldest participating in the county program was 76. They are of all races and backgrounds, she said, and get assignments either for 10 months or a 12-week summer stint.

Mr. Martin was a student at Western Michigan when he signed up for a summer posting job at the Pittsburgh Project, a nonprofit community development organization on the North Side.

"I didn't know anyone here, but I fell in love with the city," he said. Following his summer service, he was accepted into the 10-month program and continued to work in Perry South.

After he finishes his service at the end of June, Mr. Martin will continue his education at the University of Pittsburgh. He plans a career in social work.

Program members receive basic health insurance, child-care benefits and a salary. Those stipends are $11,800 for a 10-month assignment and $3,123 for the summer. They also can earn education benefits, currently worth $5,350, for completing the 10-month program.

The county program has eight summer members and four full-year members working for the Braddock Youth Project, an employment, training and community development effort for young people.

"It would be impossible to run our program without AmeriCorps members," coordinator Andrea Arrington said. "Their tireless enthusiasm makes it seem like we have two people filling each position."

In Braddock, corps members works with teenagers from some of the poorest communities in Allegheny County. As do their counterparts at the Pittsburgh Project, service corps workers start their project planning efforts by finding out from the young people and their families what they see as the needs of their community.

"Then the adult staff can see what they can do to help provide resources," Ms. Arrington said.

While the primary focus of the Braddock project has been working with students of high school age, the teenagers themselves have sought to widen the scope of the program to involve younger children and, this summer, to senior citizens.

Asraiel Harewood, 17, has been a member since 2008.

In 2009 she and a friend, Abraam Kelly, helped to develop a "Healthy Practices" program that emphasizes good nutrition and exercise.

"This summer we'll be going around to different neighborhood parks and helping with craft programs and field trips," she said.

Ms. Harewood, who graduated recently from Woodland Hills, is one of program's success stories, Ms. Arrington said. She has been awarded a full scholarship to Duke University, and she won a $20,000 Coca-Cola national scholarship as well.

She credited the life-lessons she learned as a program intern with helping her win the Coca-Cola grant. "I learned the importance of giving back," she said. "When people see us wearing our BYP shirts, they know that we're trying to get our community back to where it used to be."

The county's Department of Human Services has operated the KEYS program since 1995. Over the past 16 years it has employed more than 1,300 members. The program is open to U.S. citizens who can work up to four service terms. A summer assignment is one term and a 10-month job equals to two terms.

The program budget for 2010-11 is $1.8 million with federal money accounting for about 58 percent of the total. The rest of the funding, which includes cash and in-kind contributions, comes from local, state and host agency sources.

"It's a great way to get experience working in the field that interests you, like education, public health or community development," Ms. Wachter said.

"And you are serving your country," assistant director Aaron Gray said. An Ohio native, Mr. Gray worked as a KEYS member at Highlands High School, tutoring and mentoring students during the second year of the program. He then stayed on as an administrator.

"I joined up because I wanted to give back to the community," he said. "What I didn't realize is how much satisfaction I would get out of the program."

It is not uncommon for members working with host agencies like Pittsburgh Project or BYP to get permanent job offers after their terms of service end. "And you make friends you'll keep in touch with for a lifetime," Mr. Gray said.

More information on the program is at www.keysservicecorps.org or by calling 412-350-3344. Information on AmeriCorps assignments across the country can be viewed at www.americorps.gov.


Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1159.


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