The Pittsburgh Project: Back from the brink


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The elderly woman sat in a former church sanctuary packed with teenagers and hot from the summer air. Earlier in the day some of those teens had been hammering, painting and sweating to repair her house.

"God has answered my prayers," she told 250 volunteers and staff at The Pittsburgh Project. "They are angels. Nobody has ever helped me, not even in my own family. In two days, you have done more for me than my family has done my whole life."

The Rev. Wayne Younger, associate executive director of The Pittsburgh Project, told the youths that they were the arms and hands of the body of Christ.

"We've been talking about the amazing love God has for us. He gets ticked off when people get in the way of others knowing him. Our job is to make it easy for people to see him," he said. "We aren't here just to work, but to love people. The homeowners bless us by allowing strangers to come into their homes."

The Pittsburgh Project has had the impact of a stone dropped in a pond, with ripples flowing across the city, state and nation.

It's best known for summer service camps, when 1,800 students from as far away as Iowa repair 140 homes across Pittsburgh while learning about Christianity and racial reconciliation. But the Project's core is all-year educational and enrichment programs for children and teens in Perry South, an impoverished North Side neighborhood.

All of that nearly ended this year due to a financial crisis. That worried many civic leaders.

"The Pittsburgh Project is one of our city's greatest organizations," said Joanna Doven, press secretary for Mayor Luke Ravenstahl.

"Every year The Pittsburgh Project provides positive activities and mentoring to hundreds of our city's young people. The organization has ... taken ownership of a large area of Perry South. This has spurred more neighbors and property owners to take greater pride in their community."

Bruce Bickel, senior vice president and managing director of private foundation management services at PNC Wealth Management, has been a fan since the PNC Charitable Trust first gave the group a grant 25 years ago.

"Who they are is as important as what they do. It's their stick-to-itiveness, their patience, their character that enables them to maintain their activities in that difficult region," he said.


Starting as a summer project

The Pittsburgh Project started in 1985 as a three-week work camp for suburban teens. It was founded by the Rev. Saleem Ghubril, then the youth minister at Memorial Park Church in McCandless, now executive director of The Pittsburgh Promise. He had been a teenage refugee from the civil war in Lebanon and believed that Christian faith must show itself in love that changes lives and brings reconciliation between enemies.

In 1993, after purchasing an empty Catholic school building, The Pittsburgh Project became a year-round agency providing tutoring, summer activities and leadership training for neighborhood youths. The plan was for the mostly white summer volunteers to get to know the mostly black homeowners and neighbors, to break down racial barriers and misunderstandings.

About 75 percent of the Pittsburgh Project's neighbors live in poverty. Drug violence waxes and wanes. In the mid-1990s 28 people were killed at a nearby intersection. Early on The Pittsburgh Project was often vandalized.

But it grew, acquiring the church building, adding dormitories and taking over a park and swimming pool that the city could no longer maintain.

The Pittsburgh Project attracts government grants by keeping that money segregated from faith-building activities.

"Our staff is clear that they love Jesus. They want to see kids do well in school and work, but they are driven by wanting to see those kids become who God wants them to be," said Karen Dreyer, the interim executive director.

The mission statement paraphrases a biblical prophecy about Jerusalem: "That Pittsburgh will be called a city of truth, where once again, men and women of ripe old age will sit in the streets, each with cane in hand because of age, and where the city streets will be filled with boys and girls playing there."

The dream nearly derailed after Rev. Ghubril left in 2008 to become executive director of The Pittsburgh Promise, which has raised more than $160 million in college scholarships for graduates of Pittsburgh Public Schools and charters. The recession hit, and he had always been the engaging face of The Pittsburgh Project for donors. When his successor resigned early this year, it appeared the Project would close.

Rev. Ghubril cites the recession and Ms. Dreyer says that nonprofits always struggle after a longtime founding director leaves. For instance, she said, no one understood in time that the full cost of the home repair program wasn't covered by the fees volunteers pay to participate. But Mr. Bickel has no doubt that Rev. Ghubril's move was a blow to the organization.

"In the world of philanthropy, people give to people. They don't give to programs," Mr. Bickel said.

Rev. Ghubril. who still lives in Perry South, had initially cut ties with the Project but later returned as a board member. He co-wrote a letter that raised $150,000 within days. An anonymous donor gave enough to cover reduced neighborhood summer programs.

The budget was slashed from $3.1 million to $2 million, staff from 50 to 29. The number of youths in tutoring and life skills programs dropped from 450 to 300. Summer day campers were cut from 215 to 160.

A gym that the Project was building sits unfinished for lack of funds. An urban farm where employees had raised produce for a local farm stand is now tended by volunteers. But volunteers can't staff educational programs and maintain the high quality, Ms. Dreyer said.

The crisis donations "got us off life support so that we were simply in the hospital," Rev. Ghubril said. "Right now we are out of the hospital, in a rehab unit, trying to regain our strength."


'Another place I call home'

Last week Ms. Dreyer surveyed the pool where families lounged. Children in the summer camp played supervised games.

When she joined the staff in 1996, "there wasn't as much trust from the neighbors. It took a long time to build that trust," she said. "If we had closed, that would have been gone."

Some young summer staffers are graduates of the Project's Leaders in Training Program, and earned college scholarships. To qualify, they must have good grades and take classes in SAT preparation, writing, college success strategies and Christian world view. In the past, through grants, some visited China or Brazil, where they did volunteer work while learning about international culture and business.

A high school trip to Brazil helped DeOndra Parker, 22, focus on becoming a certified public accountant for a global firm. She's studying accounting at Carlow University with help from a Pittsburgh Project scholarship.

"It's another place I call home," said Ms. Parker, who is on the summer staff. "The people who work here guided me through life pretty well. I probably wouldn't have gone to college if I hadn't been here. I used to think that school wasn't for me."

Isaiah Williams, 18, will attend Slippery Rock University this fall with help from a Project scholarship.

"They push you to have a better future," he said. "They kept me off the street."

Ms. Dreyer called him the kind of young leader the Project is trying to raise up in Perry South.

"The younger kids look up to him. They can see the good choices he's making and want to follow in his footsteps," she said.

His fellow Leaders in Training graduate Tevin Jones will head for Indiana University of Pennsylvania to study nanotechnology.

While The Pittsburgh Project helped him academically, he said it also gave him a wider vision.

"We had Bible studies where we talk about life and how it connects to what God has done for you and how it benefits you to follow him and practice being the righteous man," he said. "I want to find ways to improve technology and help the world, to make it more eco-friendly. I want to be productive and successful and help people out."

Families with children in Pittsburgh Project programs are eligible for home repairs. That was a godsend, said Allison Arthur, 46, a medical assistant with four children ages 14-25. Two are in college with Project scholarships.

"It's a good, Christian-based place and it helped with school. It kept them off the street. My boys have never been in trouble," she said.

She spoke on her porch, above newly repaired steps. Teens were preparing to repair water damage from when one of her children had a seizure in the bathtub.

Some senior citizens receive repairs year after year. And some adult volunteers accompany the teen work crews year after year.

Chuck McGrath, 70, has brought teens from the First Presbyterian Church of Caldwell, N.J., every summer -- sometimes twice a summer -- for 16 years.

"I keep coming back because of the growth you see here in the young people. They grow in their faith and in their understanding of unconditional giving," he said.

The staff emphasizes that homeowners aren't passive recipients of charity but respected elders for whom it is an honor to work. "The kids come in thinking they will help the homeowners and come away finding that they are the ones who gained the most," Ms. Dreyer said.

Once a week the homeowners come to The Pittsburgh Project for dinner.

Helen Gratton, 76, a blind widow from Beltzhoover, sat surrounded by the teens who were building a ramp for her 1897 home. It's a perpetual site for Pittsburgh Project crews.

"If it hadn't been for The Pittsburgh Project, I probably wouldn't have a house," she said.

Ms. Gratton teaches the teens, said Chick Dougherty, an adult volunteer from the Presbyterian Church of Woodbury, N.J.

"They take turns sitting with her and she tells them stories. They report back about how interesting she is, how loving, how strong her faith is," he said.

"They learned that no matter what obstacles you face in life, with the Lord you can do it. He sends people to help you."

neigh_city

Ann Rodgers: arodgers@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416.


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