Northview Heights family center finds new life in graduates of leadership program


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People usually disperse after graduation, but 17 participants in the Coro Center for Civic Leadership's Next Leaders program stayed together after their yearlong training ended this summer.

They had met one mentor who was doing impassioned work in a place that trainee Alex Bard, 32, said "we recognized had incredible need and incredible opportunity."

Obscurely located and underused in Northview Heights -- an isolated public housing community on the North Side -- the Family Support Center and its leader, Renita Freeman, had captivated Mr. Bard and other Next Leaders to focus their energies there. Each had started the Coro program with 17 project ideas.

Participation in Coro leadership programs isn't supposed to end; the whole point is instill a desire to go forth and make a difference, said Coro CEO Greg Crowley. But a total group commitment -- albeit with some commitments stronger than others -- to one project for the long haul is unusual.

Next Leaders was a pilot in 2011 in the Hill District to infuse community organizations with new ideas and prepare younger people to become leaders in community advocacy. The recent graduates focused on the North Side.

The Coro trainees begin their yearlong program by networking, meeting mentors, visiting community organizations and coming up with individual projects to implement.

"We saw how passionate Renita is about what she does and she was supportive of our interests," Mr. Bard said.

As one group, they received a $14,400 grant from the Pittsburgh Partnership for Neighborhood Development.

There were three grants available, Mr. Bard said, "and I said, 'Why don't we all go together on this for one big grant?' "

As their first grand gesture, they gathered volunteers and painted the Family Support Center, removed a dangerous metal awning and planted flowers. Then they threw an after-party cookout for residents and gave away 200 book bags to children who were heading back to school.

"We served 398 people" food, Mr. Bard said.

"It was the most people we've ever had here at one time," Ms. Freeman said.

"A lot of people said they didn't know it was here," Mr. Bard said.

"I believe they don't, but they should," said Clarise Pryor, a resident of six years. "I use the center for everything. They're a wonderful resource, from food bank to child care to help with rent. I study there for my GED."

The Family Support Center is operated by the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh, one of the league's three such centers in Allegheny County. It has five staff members, including family development specialists and a case manager. It is a drop-in center for child care, provides computers and a library, family counseling, a family room for relaxing and socializing, a play room, a classroom to get children ready for first grade, a kitchen, a small food bank, repasts after funerals and a stage for performances.

One of the Next Leaders wants to be a youth mentor on the site.

"We can give him space," Ms. Freeman said. "Depending on the ages [of kids] he wants to mentor, we can match him with families. I would also love to see a young men's program. We have so many fatherless boys."

Quincy Swatson, 22, of Manchester, a student at the Community College of Allegheny County studying liberal arts, is going to establish a pilot aquaponics system to test in Manchester and transfer to an unused greenhouse at the Family Support Center.

"I wanted a way to involve inner city kids in something positive with a byproduct a sustainable resource," he said. "They can grow produce and fish. We already have a North Side restaurant interested in buying the fish."

Ms. Freeman said the Family Support Center is available not just to Northview Heights residents but also has participants from the Allegheny Dwellings and Fineview.

"We have 50 families, but there is so much more potential," she said.

Mr. Bard, the program events manager at the New Hazlett Theater in Allegheny Center, said he wants to conduct a community survey to make people more aware of the center and to find out how it can get more residents to use it.

"People in public housing often detach themselves" when they live in isolated places like Northview Heights, said Ms. Freeman, who grew up in the community and worked her way through the University of Pittsburgh, where she got a bachelor's degree in communications.

"This place is cut off, and that's a challenge," she said. "A lot of people don't even think about the future much less prepare for it. But we have a mechanism here for people to grow."

Coro is currently soliciting nominees and applicants from Pittsburgh's southern neighborhoods for 2013-14. For more information, visit www.coropittsburgh.org.

neigh_city

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at www.post-gazette.com/citywalk.


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