Pittsburghers developing Beltzhoover community one plateful at a time

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Community development usually involves millions of dollars for new construction and lots of political support.

Beltzhoover would love to get some of all that, but its own leaders aren't waiting. They're developing community themselves -- one plateful at a time.

Once a month, the Beltzhoover Civic Association and allied church congregations set up tables in the Warrington Recreation Center and serve free square meals to 80-100 of their neighbors. The Beltzhoover big meal is a third-Friday event "that might be some people's only real meal of that day," said Marilyn Hornsby, administrator at the Full Life Deliverance Ministry, a participating church.

Feeding struggling neighbors is the first level of community building, but the big meal brings together people who might never have met; old friends seeing each other for the first time in years; young people observing other young people in a nurturing setting; people networking.

"I want this to be a bridge to get people to break bread and build relationships," said Raymont Conner, a recreational therapist and activity director for the city's Department of Parks and Recreation. "This is open to everyone."

He proposed the idea to the civic association -- of which he and his wife, Mechelle, are members -- then to other organizations and churches.

"God dropped the idea into my spirit," he said. "My son is a drummer at Central Baptist, where they have a meal ministry, and I said 'I'd like to do something like that here.' It took off like a wildfire."

Each month, a sponsoring organization provides the food. This month, all the agencies came together to provide Thanksgiving dinner Saturday before the holiday. It was the biggest gathering yet with 150 people, said the civic association's event coordinator, Malik James.

A number of the Thanksgiving dinner diners were elders who got there in an Access van.

Norma Jackson lives three blocks away, but this was her first time at the Beltzhoover big meals. "My daughter is on the civic association, and she said, 'Ma, you've gotta come.' I'm seeing a lot of people I hadn't seen in awhile."

Mary Ann Weber said the meal helped open her world to the recreation center. "You can take exercise classes and use the weight-lifting room," she said. "I didn't even know that was here."

Then there's the more basic issue of hunger.

"I think it is more than what people want to admit," Ms. Hornsby said. "And some of our seniors now are limited, having worked hard all their lives, helped build community" and have to have the meals delivered.

"My thing is," Mr. Conner said, "if we can save you from spending money to put food on your table one day a month, that's money you can spend on the next day."

Another goal of the meal is to get youth to see each other in a positive light, Ms. Hornsby said. "If we said, 'We want you all to come together and be friends,' it wouldn't work. But if we say, 'Come eat,' it might."

Beltzhoover has struggled against blight and crime and languished without much investment for many years. But the civic association recently garnered a $15,000 grant from the Design Center for a parklet, and the 12-neighborhood umbrella group the Hilltop Alliance will begin a multiyear housing strategy with $35,000 from the Design Center.

Both grants were recently announced as part of the city's Neighborhood Renaissance Fund grant program.

Pat Murphy, executive director of the Hilltop Alliance, said the big meal is important to an overall community development effort because "to redevelop a community you need strong organizations and strong relationships among people. It takes a lot of volunteerism."

The Beltzhoover Civic Association is active in after-school programs and is working with the Hilltop Alliance on a greening vision, she said. A relatively new group, it is full of "really committed people, young and full of energy in service to community," she said. "They recruit partners, raise funds, do coordination and management -- all the things you need to tackle the larger issues."

food - 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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