PULSE's mission to attract young people to Pittsburgh has enriched the non-profit sector
June 5, 2016 12:00 AM
Stephan Bontrager stands in front of the PULSE house where he spent one year. He now works for Riverlife.
Stephan Bontrager sits on the rail in front of the columns of the PULSE house in Highland Park.
A detail of a panel illustrating a scoreboard with the “Grays and Crawfords” deep in the overgrown area at the corner of Burgess Street and Wilson Ave. in the South Perry section of Pittsburgh.
Zeba Ahmed walks at the corner of Burgess Street and Wilson Ave., in the South Perry section. This is where her project “Negro League Tribute” stands in an overgrown lot.
Zeba Ahmed stands at the corner of Burgess Street and Wilson Ave., in South Perry.
By Diana Nelson Jones / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Stephan Bontrager came to Pittsburgh sight unseen in 2001 and settled into an eight-bedroom house in Highland Park with six strangers, all new to the city, for a year of community service.
They lived on a stipend, bought scratch-and-dent canned goods and some even Dumpster dived, but he said the year he spent as a PULSE fellow — the Pittsburgh Urban Leadership Service Experience — positively set the course of his life.
“I thought I would go back to Denver after that year,” said Mr. Bontrager, who is now director of communication for Riverlife, a non-profit devoted to reclaiming and promoting city’s riverfronts. “But Pittsburgh got its hooks into me.”
Since John Stahl-Wert established PULSE in 1994 to draw educated 20-somethings to Pittsburgh, more than 200 PULSE fellows have given almost 400,000 hours of service to non-profits. That’s a $9 million contribution to the economy based on a volunteer hour’s value to non-profits, according to calculations by Independent Sector, a non-profit advocacy group.
Chris Cooke, PULSE’s executive director, said the value grows as PULSE fellows make Pittsburgh their home. Seventy percent of alumni remain for at least a year after their service and 50 still live in Pittsburgh, most working for non-profits.
“It’s the best organization on a bunch of levels,” said Frederick Thieman, president of the Buhl Foundation. “It encourages volunteerism, it keeps some of the best and brightest in Pittsburgh. The Fellows work in the community, a real value added to the nonprofits, but they move in the community and get involved as residents. They get leadership training and a sense of commitment. The financial model works too, with a lot of churches supporting them.”
PULSE gets foundation grants and other private support but operates mostly on fees that non-profits pay for PULSE fellows’ service. It doubled its cohort last year from 16 and added fellows to the North Side. It now has several houses and plans to expand south and west within the next three years, Mr. Cooke said.
The Buhl Foundation provided a $75,000 grant over three years to help PULSE expand into the North Side and hired a PULSE fellow to help with its One Northside outreach.
Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Garden hired its 2009 PULSE fellow, Charity Bauman, several years after her service to coordinate its HomeGrown program, an effort to help people in under-served neighborhoods grow vegetables in their backyards.
Ms. Bauman is moving to Chicago this summer with her husband, who has a fellowship there, but, she said, “It was a hard decision to make and coming back is definitely on the table.”
“She’s leaving big shoes to fill,” said Margie Radebaugh, Phipps’ director of horticulture and education.
Under Ms. Bauman’s leadership, HomeGrown installed 92 gardens as of last year, with plans to install another 60 this year and 60 next year, Ms. Radebaugh said.
The Northside Leadership Conference, a non-profit with 14 North Side community member organizations, has had PULSE fellows for two years.
“We get bright young people with energy and new ideas, which is healthy for the staff,’ said Mark Fatla, executive director of the conference. “PULSE gave us an opportunity to add staff support to our bike-ped committee. It’s cheaper than hiring a full-time person, a big advantage, but the downside is you only have them for 11 months.”
Zeba Ahmed is completing her year with the conference as the vacant structures coordinator. A California native, she received a Fulbright Scholarship to Japan after graduating from the University of Pittsburgh. She was researching the impact nonprofits have had in Japan and learned about PULSE as her Fulbright was ending.
“I thought, ‘That would be great! I can be placed in a non-profit and get back to Pittsburgh.’ ”
As her PULSE year winds down, she is fund-raising to renovate a blighted parklet and to help the Pittsburgh Project repair and improve features of the Fowler Park playground. The Pittsburgh Project, a social and educational program for North Side youth, operates and maintains the park, including its pool, under a 15-year agreement with the city.
Ms. Ahmed has a $1,000 PULSE grant for materials and has recruited 200 volunteers for a one-day blitz on June 11 to remove litter, make repairs and paint the swimming pool.
PULSE fellows also have enriched the city’s cultural life. One of the earliest to the program, Brad Yoder, has carved a name for himself as a local singer-songwriter. He is one of a dozen PULSE alumni who play solo or in bands in the region. They include Heather Kropf, Hallie Pritts and Susanna Meyer.
Ms. Meyer came to PULSE in 2002 from Goshen College in Indiana. Her service at Mildred’s Daughters Urban Farm in Stanton Heights led to her current job as director of agricultural production for Grow Pittsburgh, an advocate of community gardens.
During her PULSE year, she met Neil Stauffer, a fellow from the year before who stayed in Pittsburgh. Originally from Lancaster, he is now the general manager for Penn’s Corner Farm Alliance. They married and bought a house in a wooded area of Garfield in 2006.
“That’s been one thing that has kept us here,” she said. “We never thought we could find a house we could afford, and we have great neighbors. Plus, with all the connections we have formed over the years, we can’t go out of the house without seeing someone we know.”
One group of PULSE fellows remained together after their year to establish The Union Project in 2001. In the process, they saved an old church and its stained glass windows by having professionals teach stained-glass restoration to paying students. The Union Project is now a community institution in Highland Park.
Mr. Bontrager was one of the PULSE fellows who helped the alumni clean the church in his spare time. He served his year with publicly supported WYEP-91.3 FM.
He and his housemates rode the bus to their service sites because no one had a car.
“Looking back, it had a bohemian feeling, which I was looking for,” he said. “The house was drafty, and I lived with very frugal people. Two of the guys worked for Mildred’s Daughters urban farm and would bring produce home. I remember one group meal of boiled carrots and beets. When you’re 22, you just go with it.”
He was later hired as WYEP’s mid-day disc jockey and in 2009 moved on to Riverlife.
Mr. Bontrager’s cohorts included James Eash, who has worked in community development for the Lawrenceville Corp., the Mount Washington Community Development Corp. and now as real estate development officer for ACTION-Housing.
They arrived when the Union Project was still a dream, with busted windows and dead pigeons in the belfry.
“That first week when we were cleaning out the church, it was in a terrible state, but the community was all pitching in,” Mr. Bontrager said. “That was my first taste of ‘Wow, in Pittsburgh you can roll up your sleeves and really do things.’ ”
Diana Nelson Jones: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1626.
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