It wasn't until he was almost finished with an undergraduate degree in psychology, that Jeff Fromknecht decided he wanted to be a dentist.
"I decided that I wanted to work at a community dental clinic. I wanted to give back to the community," he said. But despite graduating with honors, an undergraduate degree in psychology doesn't exactly lend itself to dental school and Mr. Fromknecht was wait-listed twice.
While waiting for an opening in dental school, Mr. Fromknecht looked for other opportunities and found a job at the Barber National Institute in his hometown of Erie - a perfect job for his goals.
"I worked with kids with autism and loved it. My vision was to work for or open a nonprofit dental clinic so I could give back to the community and this was the same kind of work, I could give back to the community," he said.
The second time he was wait-listed for dental school, however, Mr. Fromknecht said it was time to rethink his goals.
"I thought, 'I can't just sit here and wait to get in [to dental school], I've got to look at other graduate programs that can help me open a clinic,' " he said.
He decided that path would include a master's degree in social work at the University of Pittsburgh. Mr. Fromknecht thought he would concentrate on the business side of social work and include classes in nonprofit management, finance and management.
While pursing his degree, he also landed an internship at what is now known as CLASS, Community Living and Support Services, a nonprofit based in Oakland that works to include people with all levels of disabilities into the community. Mr. Fromknecht formed an important relationship with Al Condeluci, the CEO, who continues to serve as a mentor.
Mr. Fromknecht finished his master's in 2007 and decided he wanted to pursue a law degree. This time, however, he didn't tell anyone he was following that road.
"I already had everyone waiting to see if I would get into dental school. I didn't tell them I was taking the LSAT or anything. I just told them when I was accepted into law school," he said.
He had decided a law degree, coupled with his MSW, would make the perfect combination to help him follow his dream to continue to serve the community. Mr. Fromknecht had a fairly heavy load, still working at CLASS, taking evening law classes and pursing other opportunities, including serving as a law clerk with attorney Steve Lynch, someone else who would become an important mentor.
"At one point, Steve sat me down and asked me what kind of law I wanted to pursue," he said. And that got him thinking.
"I knew I didn't want to be a traditional law firm and I really liked working in the nonprofit world," Mr. Fromknecht said.
Since he had been working with several friends on a loosely based project to pool their resources to serve others since 2009, Mr. Fromknecht decided to take the project one step further and incorporated to form Side Project Inc.
Mr. Fromknecht serves as the president and is the only paid employee. Others serve on the board and work with him on various projects as needed. The 501c(3), or nonprofit tax exemption, is pending.
Since Mr. Fromknecht's wife Anne is from Florida, the couple decided to relocate to her hometown of West Palm Beach. But since he works with Side Project and she works for a Pittsburgh-based company, they spend half of their time in Shaler.
"It is a different situation, but really works for us. We love and work in both areas," he said.
Mr. Fromknecht is a licensed attorney in both states - he recently passed the bar in Pennsylvania and he serves clients in both locations. With Side Project, Mr. Fromknecht provides legal advice, back office support, grant-writing research and review services, and foundation support.
He and his cousin, Adam Causgrove, who assists with Side Project, are also becoming specialists in devising unusual fundraising activities.
On Dec.15, they will host the Winter Tail-GREAT, a tailgate party before the Steelers-Bengals football game to raise money for Operation Once in a Lifetime, an organization that serves wounded veterans. The event also is held in the summer before a Pirate game.
Mr. Fromknecht recently assisted, Jam2Jam, an organization that hosted a fundraiser for the Millvale Library. It is those types of grass roots connections that drive Mr. Fromknecht.
"That is what I want to do - help folks who are helping others," he said.
The Winter Tail-GREAT will be held at 4 p.m. Dec. 15 at Heinz Field. Tickets are $25. Tickets are available at Tail-GREAT.com.