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Play it Forward toy drive seeks volunteers, space

Three years ago, Heather Starr Fiedler and Amy Kier realized they had many toys their children no longer played with. Rather than throw them out, they decided to start Play It Forward, a gently used toy drive.

To continue its success and growth, Fiedler and Kier are looking for volunteers to organize group drives and volunteer empty spaces to serve as donation drop-off sites for this year’s event.

“It’s an amazing opportunity for the entire family to get involved,” says Fiedler. “Parents can use the opportunity to talk to their kids about giving back to children who are less fortunate than them and groups of all ages and sizes can help donate, collect, sort and organize toys, or volunteer in our ‘shopping’ day and help the family pick the toys for their children.”

Since its inception, the toy drive has been a huge success. Last year, 2,000 children received toys.

“We collect more and more toys each year,” says Fiedler. “The first year we collected about 5,000 toys and we counted 20,000 the second year. Last year we honestly lost track and were overwhelmed by the donations.”

Fielder says Play it Forward differs from other toy drives because they only collect gently used toys, books, games and stuffed animals.

“We are not asking for people to go to the store and purchase a toy, but rather clean out their own playrooms and donate items that are no longer being used,” says Fiedler.

Because of the great number of toys donated each year, Fiedler also needs volunteers to donate extra space in their homes or businesses to serve as drop-off sites for storing the toys until day the donations are available for shopping.

“With just two of us, there’s no way we can collect all of the toys ourselves,” says Fiedler. “So we ask anyone with some spare room to help collect and organize the toys for us. It could be a store room at a business or just a family’s basement.”

For those interested in helping by donating to Play it Forward, Fiedler says while all donations are welcome, they often get plenty of donations for younger children, but they struggle to get donations that are appropriate for older age groups.

“Many of the families that come for assistance have kids of all ages,” says Fiedler. “We encourage people to think outside the ‘toy box’ and donate items like sporting equipment, jewelry and electronics that they may not think of as toys, but that an older child or young teen may enjoy.”

Donations will be accepted through Dec. 1. Families in need can shop for free between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. on Dec. 13 at a location not yet announced.

Learn more about Play it Forward by visiting www.facebook.com/playitforwardpittsburgh

Art pop-up supports transitional services for women

Life transitions can be difficult, especially for women who traditionally earn less than men. That’s why The Center for Women strives to help women get their feet back on the ground after experiencing life circumstances such as returning to work after being a stay-at-home parent, losing a spouse, or going through a divorce.

To help support and increase community awareness for their services, The Center for Women has partnered with Pittsburgh 10, a collective of primarily female local artists, to host a one-day pop-up art exhibit from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Sunday, October 19, at The Center on Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill.

The event will feature new works from Zivi Aviraz, Lila Hirsch-Brody, Kathi DePasse, Joel Kranich, Helen Naimark, Lilli Nieland, Jane Ogren, Phiris (Kathy) Sickels, David Sparks, and Susan Sparks. The work of jewelry designer Danielle Brannigan and ceramicist Sally Allan will also be exhibited.

“We are excited to welcome the Pittsburgh 10 to exhibit their unique pieces at The Center for Women,” says Becky Abrams, director at the center. “We’re always eager to bring new people into The Center to learn more about our programs and volunteer needs, and this collaboration with the Pittsburgh 10 is a one-of-a-kind opportunity for us to raise funds as well as awareness for our programs.”

Attendees will have the opportunity to purchase their favorite pieces from the exhibit and a portion of the proceeds will benefit The Center for Women to support its mission. The organization strives to be a resource for information, referrals, and programming to provide financial and career readiness skills to a vulnerable population of women in transition.

“Getting back on your feet after a transition can lead to financial devastation if you are not knowledgeable about what resources are available to help you,” says Abrams. “Women who are returning to the workforce after raising children are faced with needing to brush up on their career skills, learning new skills and entering a very different and competitive job market.”

The Center, which opened in August 2013, offers services to women of all backgrounds, including Financial Fitness and Return to the Workforce workshops; personal, financial, and career mentoring; internships and job shadowing opportunities; and consultations with volunteer attorneys and financial experts.

“The Center’s programming promotes economic independence, building on and complementing existing career center programming, most of which focuses on hard skills such as resume development, interview skills and vocational assessments,” says Abrams. “The Center’s programming includes focus on ‘soft’ skills such as coaching and mentoring, job experience, self-esteem building, appropriate dress and workforce readiness. These programs and services are important to women in transition so that they can have a place to support them while they get back on their feet. Women helping women to reach and maintain financial independence is the goal of The Center for Women.”

For more information, visit www.centerforwomenpgh.org.

Barebones returns with one-time Rocky Horror Picture Show production

On Monday Oct. 27 at Regent Square Theater, Barebones Productions will be performing its annual one-time production of The Rocky Horror Picture show as a fundraiser.

Barebones Productions was founded by Patrick Jordan, a local actor who wanted to fill a void in the city’s theater landscape.

“I started Barebones Productions to fill what I felt was a void in the Pittsburgh theater landscape,” he says. “There was important work I felt was being looked over in the market in general. Barebones Productions grew from there.”

Past productions from the theater company include A Steady Rain, The MotherF**ker with the Hat, Jesus Hopped the A Train, Killer Joe and others.

Funds raised through The Rocky Horror Picture Show production will help support the company’s mission to facilitate the growth of local theater artists through the production of challenging, entertaining, thought-provoking plays and to attract new young theater audiences by employing minimal production elements for maximum impact.

This is the second year Jordan has produced The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Last year, it sold out. Tickets for this year’s show cost $50 if purchased in advance ($60 at the door) and include admittance to the show, alcoholic beverages, and snacks.

“It was supposed to be just a one time thing,” says Jordan. “The response was so positive and everyone, including the performers, had so much fun that people kept asking us to do it again.”

This year’s cast, just as last year, is full of local artists and performers.

“I can honestly say its incredible and the only time you will see this many local artists having this much fun on stage at one time,” says Jordan. “We have a lot of amazing performers returning from last year.”

These returning performers include the Legendary Phat Man Dee, Dave Mansueto, dynamic frontman and multi-talented Wammo, Daina Griffith, Gregg Dutton, Liz Adams, Sarah Siplak from Wreck Kids and more. Jordan says there will also be some surprised additions to the cast that will be teased on Facebook and Twitter.

The popularity of the Barebone’ Rocky Horror production has drawn the attention of many theater-lovers, but its also attracted individuals who may not have otherwise been interested in theater.

“We had a few people come last year that just like Rocky Horror and wanted to see our twist on it and now they are returning patrons of Barebones,” says Jordan. “It’s cool to see people stray from the norm and become supporters of the arts.”
For those who haven’t seen Rocky Horror Picture Show or aren’t familiar with the popular live cast performances of the film,

Jordan says guests can expect a “powerhouse performances and a kick ass night out” from the show.

For more information visit www.barebonesproductions.com

2015 Fast Pitch offers nonprofits more than just grant money

The application for Social Venture Partners (SVP) 2015 Fast Pitch program is now open. SVP designed the annual program to offer Allegheny County's nonprofit organizations more than just grant money in a process referred to as “engaged giving.”

SVP Pittsburgh Director Elizabeth Visnic describes engaged giving as a responsive approach to philanthropy, including grants plus investing time, professional skills and/or life experience to strengthen nonprofit programs.

“Engaged giving also leverages the resources of others from throughout the community toward a common goal— recognizing that we can do more together than any one of us can do alone,” Visnic says.

Fast Pitch is a two-month program designed to build the capacity of and create visibility for innovative nonprofits in Allegheny County. Through the Fast Pitch process, nonprofit leaders are trained to creative effective messaging for their organization and its needs. The participating nonprofits are provided with the tools and resources to improve their communication, increase their fundraising success and elevate their profile– necessary skills for success in today’s economy.

“Unlike other competitions that focus solely on cash awards, Fast Pitch programming is designed for all participants’ benefit," Visnic says. "Each nonprofit finalist finishes the program with a clearly defined message, valuable networks from throughout the community, and they have shared their vision with 350+ community members gathered for the purpose of learning how to get involved. The Fast Pitch is much more than a one-night event or cash prizes.”

The Fast Pitch winner is selected at the final event in the spring, where finalists present a three-minute pitch, crafted with the help of coaches. The top two presenters are awarded cash prizes of $15,000 and $7,500. Fast Pitch attendees select the winners via ballot. Whether receiving a top prize or not, all nonprofits benefit greatly from the exposure to foundations, philanthropists and other members of the community eager to offer their assistance to participants of the program, Visnic says.

Nonprofits interested in getting a glimpse at what SVP is about can attend the organization’s Fall Pitch event this month on Oct. 21. Fall Pitch is similar to Fast Pitch where finalists give 10-minute PowerPoint pitches. The winner of the Fall Pitch receives 18 months of capacity-building assistance and a $12,500 grant.

Learn more about Fast Pitch and purchase tickets to Fall Pitch here: www.socialventurepartners.org/pittsburgh/

Pugtoberfest supports regional rescue efforts

A group of pugs is referred to as a grumble, and if you were anywhere near Kunkle Park in Apollo, Armstrong County, last Saturday, you likely heard-- and saw— quite a few grumbles of grumbling, snorting pugs. Pugs from western Pennsylvania and beyond gathered at the park for the annual celebration of Pugtoberfest in PA, a fundraiser to support two local pug rescues, Guardian Angels Pug Rescue and Southwest PA Pugs with Special Needs.

Patti Levay runs Guardian Angels Pug Rescue; Lisa Ward runs Southwest PA Pugs with Special Needs. Both rescues are in Westmoreland County, with Levay in Latrobe and Ward in Leechburg.

More than 600 people and their pugs attended this year’s event, which grows more popular every year. Guests attended from as far as California and others came from Missouri, North Carolina, Tennessee, New Jersey and New York.

“It’s grown by leaps and bounds. You always expect a little increase, but this year we were surprised,” Levay says.

The event featured food, a Chinese auction, vendors and contests. The pug-centered contest categories included a pug race, curliest tail, longest tongue, best pug/owner look-a-like, best trick and best individual and group costumes. Non-pug breeds also had their own contest categories including cutest "pugwannabe" and best "pugwannabe" costume. 

“We had a lot of original costumes this year,” says Levay. “The pug that won first place was dressed up as an aviator in a leather outfit with goggles. We also had a pug in a stroller dressed as an angel, and the stroller was decorated like a cloud.”

Other pugs were dressed as Little Bo Peep, a three-headed pug, a pug in a “pug lite” beer box and other creative and store-bought outfits.

In addition to raising funds through fun and games, Pugtoberfest also serves as an opportunity for guests to meet pug rescues available for adoption and foster. Many of the pugs rescued by both organizations are ill or elderly or have special needs.

“A lot of them are seniors or special needs. They come in with health conditions people just didn’t want to be bothered with,” says Levay, adding that 70 percent of the dogs have eye or knee issues.

Levay says she recently rescued a senior pug that was severely underweight with sores and tumors. A veterinarian suggested she euthanize the senior dog, but instead Levay opted for the $700 surgery to prolong his life.

“I think that the dog deserved the chance to know love,” she says. “The rest of his life he’ll be comfortable, happy and have a warm place to sleep.”

Currently Levay has 10 dogs at her rescue and one in foster care and the number of dogs she can care for at one time is limited.  Young and healthy rescues tend to spend a very brief time with Levay, but others that are older or have health issues can stay longer. Two of her dogs have been with the rescue for three years. Southwest PA Pugs with Special Needs currently has six dogs, two of which have been with the rescue for a couple years as well.

Both rescues rely heavily on personal donations to ensure they can continue to support the pugs in their care and also rescue additional pugs when resources allow.

“Just to take a dog in costs around $300,” says Levay. “That doesn’t include if they need spayed or neutered or have other health issues.”

On top of the intake costs and vet bills for health issues, the rescues also need to pay for regular day-to-day items like dog food, cleaning supplies, eye drops, flea medication and heartworm medication.

“People always ask what I need and if they can donate toys and beds,” says Levay. “I always say ‘How about a bottle of bleach instead?’ People don’t think about those kinds of things.”

Pugtoberfest serves as both rescues' largest annual fundraiser, bringing in around $4,500 last year to split between the rescues. Other fundraising efforts include an annual summer luau and pet photos with the Easter Bunny.

For more information, visit Guardian Angels Pug Rescue or Southwest PA Pugs with Special Needs.


At 10 years, City of Asylum Pittsburgh honors five exiled writers

Yaghoub Yadali was a writer in Iran when he wrote The Rituals of Restlessness in 2004. Three years later, he was sentenced to a year in prison due to the descriptions of an adulterous love affair in his debut novel.

All around the world, literary artists like Yadali are persecuted and even exiled for their writings. A fortunate few of these writers have found refuge in organizations like City of Asylum Pittsburgh that provide them with the sanctuary and support they need to continue their craft and reestablish themselves in a new country.

This month, City of Asylum Pittsburgh is celebrating its 10th anniversary by honoring five exiled writers who have sought sanctuary through the organization: Huang Xiang, Horacio Castellanos Moya, Khet Mar, Israel Centeno and Yaghoub Yadali.

The five honored writers will be reading from their novels at a celebration event on Saturday, Oct. 18, from 8 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. at Alphabet City Tent on Sampsonia Way in the North Side.

The event is free to the public and tickets can be reserved online. Prior to the free event City of Asylum will be holding a private reception from 6 p.m. to 7:45 p.m with tickets available for $75 per person. Reception attendees will have their choice of one book and enjoy an international dinner buffet and drinks, as well as the opportunity to mingle with the night's honorees.

Since its inception, City of Asylum Pittsburgh has hosted more than 15 exiled, visiting and exchange writers and presented more than 250 authors and musicians from 42 countries in free readings and concerts. The organization provides an invaluable resource to these writers and also a learning opportunity for the Pittsburgh community.

"There is no more powerful way to be reminded of the importance of defending creative free expression in our own lives," says Henry Reese, founder of City of Asylum Pittsburgh. "When we provide sanctuary to an exiled writer in our community, we also make space in ourselves for important human values."

In addition to providing housing to exiled writers, the organization also provides additional assistance like a stipend, medical benefits, transportation and even an immigration attorney. Services such as commissioning English translations, helping writers find a publisher or securing employment for spouses, are tailored to each writer’s skills and needs in an effort to help the writer become stable and self-supporting.

Among its most visible advancements since City of Asylum’s founding are a series of homes with writing on the exterior. It all started in 2004, when exiled writer Huang Xiang covered his City of Asylum residence with Chinese calligraphies of his poems. The overwhelming response from visitors and neighbors led to the development of additional houses on Sampsonia Way that feature text-based artwork on the facades. Since then, public awareness and community interest in the organization has grown beyond Reese's expectations.

"We had no idea that a program providing sanctuary to endangered, exiled writers would resonate so deeply in the community," says Reese. "We only thought about the writers and making a new home for them, and then we discovered that our own neighborhood was being transformed in the process."

The organization has also developed monthly readings with international authors and translators, an annual free Jazz Poetry Concert, the founding and continued publishing of Sampsonia Way magazine and a sister city exchange with Brussels, Belgium.

While the past 10 years have been a successful journey so far, Reese hopes that City of Asylum continues to grow and make an impact in Pittsburgh.

"We would like to grow our writer sanctuary program so it can support a half-dozen or more exiled writers concurrently," says Reese. "We also hope our neighborhood will be be an inspiring community to live in, where art and the imagination are central."

Next year, City of Asylum will open the Alphabet City literary center, which will feature flexible seating for up to 125 guests and serve as a home for readings, performances, seminars and cultural events, in addition to a bookstore and café.

"We would like to make Alphabet City a hub for Pittsburgh's creative cultural and social life, where you can always find interesting conversation, books, and performances along with good food and drink," says Reese.

Pressley Ridge students create new permanent art mural downtown

For people diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, art and creativity have been proven to improve and enhance physical, mental and emotional well-being. With this in mind, Pressley Ridge School for Autism is organizing the creation of a mural Downtown, crafted with help from students at the school.

“Art acts as a visual tool for communication as well as a multi-sensory activity for children who have autism,” says Kelly Weimer, Director of Autism Services at Pressley Ridge. “For someone who may have difficulty with language, the art-making process becomes an outlet for self-expression and creativity. It gives children a way to express themselves in a positive manner. Children who have autism also respond to sensory input differently than most people. The smell and the feel of paint both contribute to opening up the children’s senses when they are exploring the materials, giving them a new experience.”

The mural is being painted on the brick wall of a building at 1208 Fifth Avenue in Downtown Pittsburgh and will become a permanent art installation.

The first painting day was Saturday, Oct. 4.  A second painting session will be held from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 11, and is open to the public.

“We’re hoping even more folks can help this Saturday at our final Community Paint Day,” says Weimer.

To help plan and coordinate this mural project, Pressley Ridge partnered with Moving the Lives of Kids Community Mural Project (MLK Mural).

“Pressley Ridge has been working closely with MLK Mural for the entire process,” says Weimer. “MLK Mural frequently does these types of programs to engage youth in their community through art, but we wanted to collaborate on something specific to the autism community and our children.”
Kyle Holbrook, founder of MLK Mural, designed the mural to incorporate both the Pittsburgh Penguins and features of the autism community like illustrations that will appeal to the senses of the kids and the puzzle piece symbol often used for autism awareness.
“[The puzzle piece] signifies the complexity of the disorder, but also the diversity of people affected by autism,” says Weimer.
Once the mural is completed, Weimer hopes it will serve as a permanent reminder to children of the positive impact they can make on the city.

“This project will showcase how talented and passionate our students are. They can create something amazing and affect the community in such a positive way, just like anyone else,” says Weimer. “We hope that the Pittsburgh community can view this mural and think of the students at the Pressley Ridge School for Autism in a new and inspiring way.”
To learn more about Pressley Ridge School for Autism, please visit www.PressleyRidge.org.

ASSET hopes to close STEM funding gap with new scholarship program

In celebration of its 20th anniversary, ASSET, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing teaching and learning to empower students, announced a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Scholarship Program to support innovative STEM education programs.

All school districts and education organizations including libraries or tutoring programs may apply for a piece of the anticipated $200,000 scholarship pie for the 2014-2015 school year. Recently, ASSET was awarded a $50,000 matching grant from The Hillman Foundation to help reach this grant pool goal. Other sponsors include Bayer Corporation, Dollar Bank Foundation and Westinghouse.

“At ASSET, our focus is on directly impacting teachers and students,” said Dr. Cynthia Pulkowski, Executive Director. “Establishing the STEM Scholarship Program is the perfect way to celebrate our 20th anniversary because the program is representative of our mission — advancing teaching and learning to engage, inspire and empower all students.”

According to ASSET, budget constraints in many school districts have resulted in drastic reductions to vital STEM education programs that help children develop necessary skills and knowledge to succeed. Through this scholarship program, ASSET hopes to help some school districts close the funding gap and ensure that high-quality STEM education opportunities are available to all students, regardless of budget constraints.

Dollars granted through the scholarship will provide classroom materials and/or professional development for educators; increase student participation in hands-on STEM learning; and enhance educators’ effective instrumental practices.

The first round application deadline was Sept. 15 and applications and scholarships will be reviewed and awarded as received. While any school district or educational organization is invited to apply, preference will be given to organizations with a high percentage of students on free/reduced lunch, high levels of diversity and low proficiency on state assessments.

To apply or learn more about ASSET’s STEM Scholarship Program, visit www.assetinc.org

ATHENA Awards recognize excellence in professional women

This year's Greater Pittsburgh ATHENA Awards Program honored the president and CEO of UPMC Health Plan and the sales manager for Lightning Energy Services.

For 24 years, The Allegheny Conference on Community Development has recognized exceptional professional women through the Greater Pittsburgh ATHENA Award and the ATHENA Young Professionals Award.

During the awards luncheon on Monday, UPMC Health Plan President and CEO Diane Holder received the Greater Pittsburgh ATHENA Award. Amelia Papapetropoulos, Sales Manager for Lightning Energy Services, received the ATHENA Young Professionals Award.

The ATHENA Awards are named after the Greek goddess of strength and wisdom and annually recognize professional women who serve as exemplary examples of these traits. The Greater Pittsburgh ATHENA Awards Program Luncheon is one of the largest stand-alone events of its kind among some 500 presented annually across the globe in affiliation with ATHENA International.

Holder was selected from a pool of 25 nominees and five finalists as this year’s Greater Pittsburgh ATHENA Award recipient. 

“Through their examples, inspiration and mentorship, ATHENA Awards recipients make a difference for countless women from many walks of life,” said Allegheny Conference Chief Financial Officer Janel Skelley. “That’s what distinguishes such ATHENA award recipients as Diane Holder, who joins the ranks of 23 other remarkable women we’ve been privileged to recognize with this award.”

Holder has led UMPC’s insurance division, as well as strategic and business operations, for 15 health-related insurance and health management companies. She focuses on helping people live longer, healthier lives and advocating for good health for all members of the community. Holder serves on numerous boards, mentors groups and individuals, and lends her support and guidance to the Women’s Center & Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Women Work and Standing Firm, among other organizations. She is a mother of three children.

Papapetropoulos was selected from a pool of 25 nominees and three finalists for The ATHENA Young Professional Award, which recognizes leaders under the age of 35.

She is the founder of Young Professional Women in Energy and works for equity and greater visibility for women in the energy sector. She is also president of Amelia’s Elegant Catering and developer of fire-resistant clothing for women field workers. She is a member of the region’s Young Professional Board for Junior Achievement, an evaluator at the University of Pittsburgh’s national entrepreneurship completion and has been named one of Pittsburgh Magazine’s “40 Under 40.” She is a contributing author to the book Empower! Women’s Stories of Breakthrough, Discovery and Triumph.

Other 2014 Athena Award Finalists include:
  • Linda Croushore, Executive Director, The Consortium for Public Education;
  • Susan Kirsch, Shareholder-Tax Advisory Services, Schneider Downs;
  • Karen Larrimer, Chief Customer Officer and Chief Marketing Officer, PNC; and
  • Suzy Teele, Chief Operating Officer, SnapRetail.
The other 2014 ATHENA Young Professional Award finalists, chosen from among 25 nominees, were:
  • Stephanie Garbe Compliance Senior Specialist, PNC; and
  • Sabrina Saunders, Executive Director, Strong Women Strong Girls.

Sample fine wine and food at HEARTH's annual fundraiser

An evening devoted to sampling wine and food from Pittsburgh's most beloved eateries will benefit HEARTH, a non-profit that provides safe and affordable housing for the area's homeless.

The Art of Wine & Food will feature treats from Bluebird Kitchen, The Capital Grille, Il Pizzaiolo, Mallorca, Jimmy Wan's, Willow and more from 6 to 9 p.m. on Oct. 2 at the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh on the North Side. 

This year, event organizers hope to raise $50,000. Last year's event raised $55,000. 

As the organization's largest annual fundraiser, The Art of Food & Wine supports HEARTH's mission of helping local families to become independent and self-sufficient through support services and adequate housing. 

“The event began in 2002 and was held at Manchester Craftsmen's Guild,” says event committee member Vicki Gill. “It’s developed into not only a fundraiser, but a ‘friend’ raiser bringing awareness of the programs HEARTH provides to people who love wine and food.”

Kelli Burns Entertainment will DJ for the evening. Guests can purchase tickets for a chance to win prizes in the Chinese auction, including an autographed Neil Walker jersey, overnight stays at some of Pittsburgh’s best hotels, a South African photo safari and golfing at Mystic Rock at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort.

Sponsors for the festivities include Jackie and Chuck Fusina, First National Bank, TriState Capital Bank, Guardian Storage, RAK Medical Inc./Globus Medical, Savinis, D'Amico and Kane LLC, Sitko Bruno and Trek Development Group.

For more information, visit www.hearth-bp.org/winefood.htm

LunaMetrics provides valuable SEO training to non-profits for second year

With the success of last year’s free Search Engine Optimization training for non-profits and students, LunaMetrics has arranged to host the training again this year on Oct. 18 and 19 at its South Side offices.

According to Chris Vella, LunaMetrics search analyist and trainer for this year’s session, many non-profits find that learning SEO skills on their own is out of reach.

“Non-profits have a lot to gain from learning SEO, especially in Pittsburgh where the non-profit sector thrives," Vella says. "Competition is a real threat to any organization, and employing SEO best practices helps an organization to get into fighting shape. SEO audits for organizations can cost upwards of $10,000, so this is truly a valuable opportunity.”

The training will provide non-profits with the tools they need to improve their web presence. The training is available for seven to eight non-profits and about 20 students. A group of students will recommend website changes for each non-profit to make in order to improve its SEO.

“Having a strong presence on the Internet is vital to any organization’s survival and that’s becoming a more widely accepted notion these days,” says Vella. “It’s not always obvious, however, how to build that strong presence an organization desires. SEO, search engine optimization, is about building or growing your audience and making your organization easier to discover online.“

Students benefit from the training by learning an employable skill, which Vella notes is increasingly important in today’s fierce job market.

“Students will also have the opportunity to network with other students interested in professional development from the Pittsburgh area and local non-profits,” says Vella. “We’ve also tried to involve organizations that could potentially offer the students internships following the training.”

Vella himself is an example of how the training can help students find employment. He attended the training last year and began working for the digital consulting firm a short time later.

“The training brought so many opportunities to me, and I eventually ended up being hired at LunaMetrics as a search analyst,” says Vella. “The tables have turned and I’m conducting the training this year. I hope to give this year’s students a similar experience.”

Learn more about the training at www.lunametrics.com/website-traffic/seo/pittsburgh-seo-training/

RADical Days offers free admission to more than 30 regional assets

The next few weeks are looking pretty rad thanks to free admission to the region's most beloved cultural gems, courtesy of the Allegheny Regional Asset District (RAD) and its annual RADical Days.

In honor of RAD’s 20th anniversary, this year’s RADical Days will run for 20 days from Sept. 24 through Nov. 9. Free tours at PNC Park kick off the event on Sept. 24, followed by free admission and special programming from 35 other venues including the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium, Society for Contemporary Craft, Phipps Conservatory, Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall, Heinz Field and more.

“RAD and the regional assets invite you to enjoy 20 RADical Days as a thank you to the public for its annual support of regional libraries, parks, sports facilities and arts and culture programming,” says David Donahoe, RAD Executive Director. 

Since its inception in 1994, RAD has funded nearly 150 regional assets through the one percent county sales tax paid by residents and visitors to Allegheny County. This tax has resulted in a major investment in the region and RAD-support assets, including libraries, parks, trails, sports and civic facilities, transit systems, arts organizations, and regional facilities like the zoo, conservatory, and aviary.

“With nearly $1.5 billion invested in Allegheny County since 1994, RAD sales tax dollars have sustained and improved our regional assets, which enhance our lives and communities in many ways,” says Donahoe.

While there are more than 35 locations offering free admission or programs, admission will not be free every day at every location. A schedule of all RADical Days offerings is available online. RADical Days alerts are also available via text message by texting RAD to 79797.

Tossing 75,000 water balloons for Team Tassy

One local organization's efforts to battle global poverty made a splash in Oakland's Schenley Plaza earlier this month, leaving a larger-than-life water balloon fight in its wake. 

Pittsburgh's Third Annual Great American Water Balloon Fight pitted more than 600 balloon-tossers against each other, divided among local celebrity team captains including Tall Cathy from 96.1 FM KISS, Sally Wiggin from WTAE-TV and Jonny Hartwell from 3WS radio station. More than 100 volunteers filled 75,000 water balloons for the event benefiting Team Tassy, which works to end global poverty.

Ian Rosenberger founded Team Tassy after traveling to Haiti to assist in relief efforts following the 2010 earthquake. While there, he befriended Tassy Fils-aime, a Haitian who needed surgery to remove a tumor from his face. Through fundraising, Rosenberger raised $100,000 to help pay for her surgery at Allegheny General Hospital. 

After Tassy’s surgery was funded, Rosenberger decided to continue his mission of helping Haitians and eliminating poverty and founded Team Tassy. The Great American Water Balloon Fight is now one of the organization’s most popular fundraisers.

"The Great American Water Balloon Fight was created because of two beliefs, the first being that giving should be a joy, and the second is that if we can get everyone involved with the fight to end global poverty, we can make it happen within our lifetime,” Rosenberger says.

Rosenberger said that Team Tassy's efforts expanded beyond Pittsburgh to Denver this year, adding that he hopes the organization will continue to expand their fight to end global poverty. 


Squirrel Hill Community Food Pantry celebrates successful garden harvest

With the summer season coming to a close, Squirrel Hill Community Food Pantry (SHCFP) is enjoying the peak harvests of its Squirrel Hill volunteer garden before it winds down for the fall. The garden was launched in the spring through a collaboration with Repair the World: Pittsburgh and has helped provide food pantry clients with fresh produce options in addition to traditional pantry staples.

“Part of SHCFP’s mission is to ensure our clients have access to fresh, nutritious healthy foods, and the new garden is a wonderful way of continuing and sustaining our efforts,” says Matthew Bolton, director of SHCFP. “Even though individuals in our community may be food-insecure and rely on our services for help, we make sure they don’t have to make nutritional sacrifices.”

The volunteer garden, located on Murray Avenue broke ground in early spring and throughout the summer the garden has been providing SHCFP with fresh produce to distribute to the more than 1,700 clients utilizing the pantry. Vegetables reaped from the garden include green beans, beats, tomatoes and other seasonal vegetables.

Everything from general garden operations to coordinating volunteers for ongoing garden care and harvests was done by SHCFP and Repair the World: Pittsburgh, a local non-profit dedicated to organizing one-time and ongoing service opportunities around the issues of education, food access, senior services and refugee resettlement.

Many low-income families struggle to have access to general food stuffs and its especially difficult for these families to access healthy foods that typically run a higher cost. This is why SCHFP has had the ongoing mission of providing healthy options to its clients like fruits and vegetables in addition to the traditional pantry staples of non-perishable food items.

While the garden was established by SCHFP and Repair the World: Pittsburgh, its ongoing successful harvesting is all thanks to dedicated volunteers who donate their time to maintain the garden, take care of the plants and harvest ripened vegetables.

"The Squirrel Hill volunteer garden truly showcases the tremendous spirt of volunteerism in Pittsburgh," Bolten says. "Our overall goal is to ensure food security for everyone and we can only fully do so with the support of our entire community."

For more information visit www.sqfoodpantry.org

Ready Freddy welcomes 2014 kindergarteners to Pittsburgh Public Schools

On Thursday, Aug. 28, Ready Freddy, a program devised by the University of Pittsburgh’s Office of Child Development, welcomed and encouraged incoming kindergarten students to Pittsburgh Public Schools for its sixth year.

The program launched in 2008 with a first-day-of-school event at one school. This year, Ready Freddy is at 14 Pittsburgh Public Schools and iterations of the program have been adopted in 20 different states. Expansion of the program in Pittsburgh has been thanks to the help of United Way, Carnegie Library, Reading is Fundamental, A+ Schools and the Housing Authority among others.

 “Often times Universities are criticized for being overly theoretical without understanding the practicalities of what it takes to apply the work directly in the community,” says says Ken Smyth-Leistico, assistant director at the University of Pittsburgh Office of Child Development. “This office takes great pride in understanding the challenges of what occurs by those doing direct practice and utilizing theory and best practices to fill those gaps. Ready Freddy was developed and led by staff here and it grew organically by blending the interest area of local foundations, the expertise of the Office of Child Development staff, need assessments of local schools and other avenues for input.”

Ready Freddy is designed to increase awareness about the importance of kindergarten and to help ease the transition from the home to the classroom.

“Nearly half of all children struggle with the transition to kindergarten, according to national studies,” says Smythe-Leistico.
“Late arrivals and poor initial attendance are considered significant predictors for school failure. The Ready Freddy Program targets those children most likely to be absent on the first day.”

Months before students arrive for their first day of class and Ready Freddy’s first-day-of-school festivities, the Ready Freddy team canvasses city neighborhoods, enrolls children in kindergarten, takes parents on virtual tours of the schools, and shares activity calendars as well as an interactive Web book with families.

“There are a host of reasons why children might be nervous for the first day so to ensure we have an impact with as many children as possible, several types of activities are offered during the months leading up to the first day, the first day itself, and even the months that come after,” says Smyth-Leistico. “The first day itself has become a cause for celebration.”

To ease nerves, school entrances are transformed into festive, celebratory spaces. Community members students may know are invited to stand next to teachers the students are meeting for the first time and hand the kids off. After the first day of school, Ready Freddy continues to work with families to keep the kids in the classroom.

“Naturally, the normal challenges of everyday life will lead to children beginning to miss school,” Smyth-Leistico says. “The Ready Freddy Program promotes continued dialogue with families to help problem solve difficult circumstances to ensure missing school is not the result.”

Learn more about Ready Freddy at www.readyfreddy.org
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