Bethel Park students help create learning center for homeless kids

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Bethel Park High School freshmen Alex Cabonor and Steve Schmidt know the comfort of going home after school, finding a quiet place to do homework and having a computer on which to work.

But they also know that a number of students in Allegheny County -- perhaps as many as 3,000 -- don't have a home to return to after school or a computer to work on or to exchange e-mails with friends.

That's why the 14-year-olds got involved in a service project two years ago, while they were still students at Independence Middle School, in which students helped to create a learning center for homeless children at the McKeesport YWCA.

"I'm so used to coming home and having everything there, it was kind of a shock to know there were people who didn't have that," Steve said of his thoughts when teacher Christine Schipani told him about the project.

But he, Alex and about 20 other student team leaders, known as the STAR students at IMS, worked together the past two years to create and equip the learning center. They worked under the direction of Schipani and paraprofessional Nadine Rossini.

The project was done with the McKeesport YWCA, which runs bridge and transitional housing programs for homeless women and children, and the Homeless Children's Education Fund, of which Schipani is a board member.

The HCEF, founded four years ago, provides educational support for children living in homeless shelters. The organization says it serves about 3,000 children in the county each year who become homeless.

The center, which began last week with an open house, is the sixth learning center the HCEF has helped to create either at or near homeless shelters in the past 18 months. A seventh center is expected to open soon at the Hearth center at the Benedictine Place in Ross.

The HCEF provided three state-of-the-art computers with educational software and high-speed Internet access and will cover the cost of an instructional aide in the center for the first six months, executive director Renee Hairston said.

Thirty-seven children and their mothers now live in the 15 housing units sponsored by the McKeesport YWCA. Those children, along with young girls involved in the Y Teens after-school program, will have access to the learning center there, said Cheri McDonnell, the Y's adult program director.

The room will be open from 2-7 p.m. Monday through Friday. Plans still must be worked out to have it open during some weekend hours.

The physical labor involved in creating the room came during two visits by IMS students -- one in December and one in April. The students cleared and cleaned the room, which was previously a dirty, dusty storage room.

After cleaning, the students painted the walls lilac and decorated them with stenciling of stars and the moon. Stenciled on a wall is the phrase "Shoot for the stars."

But work on the room wasn't limited to the two visits. Both before and in between the visits, the STAR students at IMS held raffles and a sale to raise about $1,600 for the room and collected more than 1,600 books.

The money was used to buy bookshelves and curtains, and the students spent hours categorizing and labeling the books by age group and placing them in the bookshelves.

Also, using points from the school's Giant Eagle Receipts Campaign, IMS students purchased a multimedia machine with a tape recorder, a DVD player and a karaoke machine, and a digital camera for the learning center.

Besides efforts on the learning center, the IMS students have collected and donated school supplies the past two years to the children of the families living in the Y housing and made personal hygiene packs for them in the past. The students and teachers also collected winter weather gear such as hats and gloves and provided money cards for the purchase of shoes.

The students got their first look at the completed learning center during last week's open house. "We did a good job," Steve said, looking pleased as he scanned the room during his turn at the microphone during an opening ceremony.

Although his comments drew laughter from most in the crowd, it didn't diminish the appreciation lavished on the students by officials from the YWCA and the HCEF.

"This is a tremendous demonstration of your seriousness to help others," HCEF founder Joseph Lagana told the group. The effort was made all the much richer by the fact that it was students helping students, he said.

It was the second time the HCEF partnered with a school. Last year, pupils from Fairview Elementary in the Fox Chapel School District helped to create a learning center at the Womanspace East shelter in Uptown. Currently the HCEF is trying to create another partnership with students in the Quaker Valley School District.

Although last week's open house was supposed to mark the official opening of the learning center, students have been using it unofficially in recent weeks, said Kathy Petruska, YWCA executive director.

"They just couldn't resist, and they are in seventh heaven," she said.

Confidentiality rules have prevented the IMS students from meeting any of the students who will use the room. But that didn't stop the Bethel Park students from thinking about their less-fortunate peers as they worked on the room.

IMS students Alaina Mager and Heather Konyk, both 13, said they thought about the students who would use the room the whole time they were working on it.

"I want to tell them that I hope they like using it because we worked really hard to make it the way we thought they would want it," Alaina said.

Mary Niederberger can be reached at or 412-851-1866.


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