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Western PA breeds championship quarterbacks -- and story tellers

To the names of quarterbacks Joe Namath, Jim Kelly, Dan Marino, Johnny Unitas and Joe Montana, how about adding Haruka Doi and Cricket Branstrom?
Haruka, from Pt. Breeze, and Cricket, from Warren County (next to Erie), could be the latest editions to a western Pennsylvania hall of fame – if we get one for seven-year-old storytellers.
The pair won places in the national PBS KIDS GO! Writers Contest for 2013 – the second year in a row that WQED's locally run competition has spawned two winners countrywide.
Of all the public television-run contests, WQED's is one of the biggest, covering not only the western part of the state but eastern Ohio and all of West Virginia. A record 1,700 entries were received, and WQED, Pittsburgh Public Schools and sponsor EQT picked out three winners each in grades K-3. Haruka's story, the top winner for second grade, is the first WQED winner of first place nationally, earning her an iPad Mini.
Her story, "Willie and Hannah," tells the tale of Willie, a baby woodpecker, and Hannah the adult red-tailed hawk. "They become really good friends when they meet," Haruka says. "Hannah is partly a mother to Willie because his real parents are not here."
Hannah supplies Willie with many types of berries, but, being a baby, Willie becomes picky and likes only one variety – and he doesn't thank Hannah. She becomes mad and leaves Willie alone, which makes him so angry he jumps out of the nest, only to be attacked by a mink. Hannah hears his cries and comes to the rescue. Willie has learned his lesson – he won't be selfish again. Hannah leads him to the place where he can find all his favorite berries.
A standout feature of Haruka's story are the torn-paper collages with which she has illustrated each page, using the bright colors of magazines to create unique accompanying artwork.
"We were just kind of surprised as we watched her writing stories," says Haruka's father Yohei, who with mother Kazu came here from Japan a year before their daughter was born. "For her, this is normal. For us, it is amazing. She is constantly reading and borrowing books from libraries. She goes through book after book. This is her first major attempt at writing a story."
Haruka's homeroom teacher and principal at Pittsburgh Colfax worked with her on the project, says Yohei. "It really led her in the right direction and got her off the ground."
Cricket Branstrom, who earned third-place among first-grade winners nationally, wrote "Little Possom's Adventure," illustrated with watercolors. Josephine the baby possum is lost in the pine forest after she returns to find her mother. She asks many animals – a raccoon, bear, deer, bobcat, rabbit, eagle and more – how she can find her way home. "They all took her to the next animal and the bobcat takes her home," Cricket explains.
"Then her mom says it was just a dream. But Josephine grinned because she knew it was real."
"I think this contest has truly encouraged her to follow her dreams," says Cricket's mother, Carilee Branstrom. "She's told us she's wanted to be an author and illustrator when she grows up."
Haruka Doi shares Cricket's plans – sort of: When she grows up, Haruka says, she wants to be "a little bit a writer and a little bit a soccer player."
Writer: Marty Levine
Source: WQED

Take over to make over: new South Side vacant lot rehab program

The success of ReClaim Northside, which provides resident training to rehab and green vacant lots, has prompted organizers GTECH Strategies to create ReClaim South.
Residents of Allentown, Arlington, Arlington Heights, Beltzhoover, Bon Air, Knoxville, Mount Oliver, Mount Washington, Southside Slopes and St. Clair have until 5 p.m. on Sept. 3 to apply for special training sessions or get a paper application at The Hilltop Alliance’s office, 512 Brownsville Road. Ten will be chosen Sept. 20.
GTECH (Growth Through Energy and Community Health) began ReClaim Northside to reduce blight and enhance the community's development skills, and its 10 participants are about to implement their vacant lot plans.
Besides the training, ReClaim South members each get $3,000 to put their plans in action. And Pittsburgh's Southside neighborhoods could use the help. GTECH and the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy studied the local landscape last year and found, in their Green Toolbox Report, that there were more than 400 acres of vacant land in the Hilltop neighborhoods.
For ReClaim South, GTECH has also added a Green Task Force to develop unique plans for other communities under the Hilltop Alliance, as well as those under Economic Development South. Unlike the grassroots work that the rest of ReClaim encourages, this group of municipal managers and community organizers will approach the problem of neighborhood revamping from the top down for several communities that are farther along in their revitalization: Carrick, Overbrook, Brentwood, Baldwin and Whitehall. The Task Force has its first session on Aug. 30.
"We felt this was a good way to build momentum off of the Green Toolbox Report and take action," says Evaine K. Sing, ReClaim South project manager.
Since ReClaim Northside, she adds, GTECH has learned to help ReClaim participants strategize project priorities and vacant lot locations so that they can be sure they are planning projects the community needs and will support. Thus, for ReClaim South, GTECH will do a demonstration vacant lot project this fall to help participants get ideas and see how implementation works.
Writer: Marty Levine
Source: Evaine K. Sing, GTECH Strategies

Ever go sideways Hula Hooping? That's Fun Day at Clayton

Before kids were allowed to shake and shimmy in public using Hula Hoops, there was hoop rolling – and badminton, croquet, sack races and other activities for the overly dressed kids of Victorian times.
Now, in the name of 21st-century fitness, kids can take part in these games from the early 1900s and more at Let's Move Family Fun Day at the Frick on Sept. 7, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Let's Move is First Lady Michelle Obama's program focused on healthy eating and active lives for kids, but the Frick Art and Historical Center has managed to adapt it to include activities in and around Clayton, Henry Clay Frick's house.
Spokesperson Greg Langel anticipates that more than 700 people will attend this year. "We hope to provide our visitors the opportunity to use the Frick site in a new way," says Langel. "We have these grounds – five beautiful acres – and this day provides guests the chance to learn about historic, turn of the century Victorian games the Frick children participated in, and to be active on the site."
Other lawn games, of a more modern nature, include challenge hopscotch, bean-bag toss and a wacky obstacle course. Kids can also follow an activity guide on the site produced for a previous Let's Move event.
Langel hopes visitors will also tour Clayton. "A good portion of the displays and rooms in Clayton are children's rooms," he notes, "and much of what we talk about are the lives of the children." The day will also feature Yoga and a Story, for kids and their families, which combines a reading of Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree” with simple yoga moves, such as tree, boat and rock poses.
A free Victorian photo booth will give kids mustaches, hats and other props to use. And if they want to see nearly real Victorian photos, they can venture into the gallery for Clayton Days Revisited: A Project by Vik Muniz. Back in 1999, Muniz used Victorian-era camera equipment to take new photos at Clayton from children's point of view. His 65 prints were originally exhibited in 2000, but they're being redisplayed now with a selection of works by Muniz from the subsequent 13 years.
The event is sponsored by UPMC Health Plan.
Writer: Marty Levine
Source: Greg Langel, Frick Art and Historical Center

Teacher feedback helps kids succeed in school

Teacher evaluations have always been crucial for Pittsburgh Public Schools, but now they will actually be useful, says a new report by A+ Schools.
Amy Scott, director of research and data analysis for A+, the nonprofit advocate for Pittsburgh school improvement, says the district and its teachers union have been collaborating for nearly five years on a new teacher evaluation system that takes best evaluation practices into account. They examined what evaluation methods held up over time and across evaluations, actually measuring the right factors and helping teachers improve. 
The new system uses a mix of classroom observations, student growth data (including, but not limited to, test results) and student surveys of teachers to assess teacher performance. A state law, Act 82, which takes effect this fall, mandates that teacher evaluations be based 50 percent on classroom observations and 50 percent on student outcomes. "Pittsburgh has specifically created a model that tries to take into consideration its student population," controlling for each student's family-income level, special education or gifted student status and other factors, Scott notes.
Teachers will be given ratings of distinguished, proficient, needs improvement or failing. Those in the latter two categories will need to take part in a performance improvement plan. Any teacher with a second "needs improvement" within a decade of the first such rating may be subject to district action.
Pittsburgh teachers got their first evaluation scores this year, which will give them a year to improve their practice, if needed. Scott believes the district is the only one in the state to act ahead of time. Eighty-five percent of city teachers were in the distinguished or proficient categories, she says, and 15 percent fell into the needs improvement or failing categories. Act 82 calls for principal evaluations in 2014-15.
The evaluation system is still "not perfect," Scott allows, so the district and union "should continue to work hard on improving the system so it can be more meaningful, so our teachers can continue to help our students succeed. The journey is not ended yet."

As the report concludes: "PPS should track the extent to which teachers find feedback from multiple measures helpful and actionable for improving their practice and create mechanisms to adjust feedback accordingly."
"The evaluation is really a teacher improvement system," Scott adds, and should lead to teachers participating in more professional development courses and workshops and prompt them to view helpful online videos, seek extra feedback and generally work toward increasing their effectiveness. "We see that as very promising – especially because what matters the most here are our students and their outcomes."
Writer: Marty Levine
Source: Amy Scott, director of research and data analysis for A+ Schools

Remember middle school? Wish you had someone looking out for you?

Middle school can be a difficult time for many kids, says Damon Bethea, mentoring projects director for United Way of Allegheny County. There are "a number of challenges: Getting used to the different environment. Juggling a schedule with different teachers. Wanting to be accepted, and dealing with bullying. Not to mention that physically, emotionally and mentally you're changing and questioning who you are in the world.
"It helps kids to feel supported by somebody who is outside a mom, dad, uncle or grandmother," he adds.
That's why United Way's Be a Sixth Grade Mentor program is expanding to include seventh and eighth grades and is now called Be a Middle School Mentor.
The program also now includes 12 Pittsburgh Public Schools, adding Pittsburgh Manchester, Pittsburgh Milliones/University Prep, Pittsburgh Obama and Pittsburgh Westinghouse this year, and plans to serve 460 students. Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Greater Pittsburgh, Communities in Schools, Mt. Ararat Community Activity Center and the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh match mentors and mentees.
The University of Pittsburgh’s Learning Research and Development Center, in evaluating the program's first two years (2009-2011), found that participating students nearly doubled their chances of qualifying for the Pittsburgh Promise college scholarship offered in the district.
The program will be recruiting new mentors through the end of November for the 2013-14 school year. The main focus of mentoring is helping kids with their careers and other aspirations. But the mentoring program also helps them do well academically, including encouraging regular attendance. Meeting with their students at lunchtime or after school, mentors aid kids in talking to teachers and creating study plans. They also advise students on what type of college or training program they might need to meet their goals.
"Anybody can do this," Bethea says, "but you have to have the commitment and the understanding that you may not see results from your mentoring for years to come – but know that you are planting seeds in the life of this young person."
Mentors, he adds, are "someone who feels that they have a lot to give to a student … or people who just have a passion about their community and want to help." 
Writer: Marty Levine
Source: Damon Bethea, United Way of Allegheny County

Bus stop, wet day, let's try WORD PLAY

Waiting is one of the toughest things for kids to do. WORD PLAY, a new bus stop game from The Fred Rogers Company, aims to make it fun and educational instead.
The game, for toddlers to first graders, was conceived as one way to help kids learn in informal situations. "It also sprang from a song, 'Why Don't We Think of Something To Do While We're Waiting,' a song Fred Rogers sang," says Margy Whitmer, WORD PLAY project manager and media producer at The Fred Rogers Company.
WORD PLAY was piloted last year. It used posters sporting simple pictures and words at bus stops, asking parents to text for questions to discuss with their kids, such as, "How many words start with the letter J, three or five?"
Finding an unsatisfying response to that approach, Whitmer's company used this year's game posters to present questions and activities right on the colorful posters themselves.
Talking and reading to kids leads to an increase in their vocabularies, helping them get ready to be successful in school, Whitmer says. "Learning is easier for them, so life is easier for them," she says.
The game also encourages the child and parent to create together. "One of the keys to good social and emotional development is the ability to develop relationships," she notes. Parents are encouraged to take photos or videos of the game in action; a Facebook page and Twitter hashtags will also be provided on the September and October posters. The August poster is available at bus stops now.
The Fred Rogers Company is working today with libraries and community groups to tell parents about the program. "My fantasy," says Whitmer, "is that cities do this everywhere. It seems so simple to me. When you learn something organically in the context of the relationship or when it us really important to you, then you really learn it."
Learn more about the new WORD PLAY here.
Funding for WORD PLAY has been provided by the Sprout Fund, The Grable Foundation and The James F. McCandless Charitable Trust.
Writer: Marty Levine
Source: Margy Whitmer, The Fred Rogers Company

Win pairs of full season tickets to the Steelers and Pirates and more

When Junior Achievement (JA) President Dennis Gilfoyle calls the JA Golden Ticket Raffle "the Powerball of sports raffles," he isn't far off the mark. "And we've added a lot of horsepower this year," he says.
Each $50 ticket will get you four chances to win a pair of tickets to a full season of home games to the Steelers, Penguins and – new this year – to the Pirates and the Power arena football team, as well as full home seasons of Penn State football (with parking), Pitt football, Pitt men’s basketball, Pitt women’s basketball and Duquesne men’s basketball.
And every week there is an added chance for winnings. Last week two Cambria Club tickets for a Pirates game were up for grabs for those who bought raffles; this week, it's two tickets to the Steelers Chamber of Commerce luncheon.
Last year, JA, which teaches kids financial literacy, entrepreneurship and workforce readiness, netted $70,000 from the raffle. That gave the organization revenue to reach out to another 3,000 to 3,500 students with programming. It also helped JA create new programs to help integrate refugee and immigrant youth into the community.
"And these young folks are so eager to learn the American way," Gilfoyle says. "They're passing it on to their families."
JA is now offered exclusively through school programs, so Gilfoyle urges kids and parents interested in their programs to contact their schools to set one up. JA also works with homeschoolers and in libraries, such as a North Hills program this month in a pre-school financial literacy camp.
The JA Golden Ticket Raffle drawing is Aug. 29 at a Rivers Club event featuring Penguins as guest bartenders.
Writer: Marty Levine
Source: Dennis Gilfoyle, JA

Why we should cheer on kindergartners and more ways to help your community

The Month of Living Generously is the time when businesses kick off their United Way workplace campaigns, but you don't have to wait until your company does it – you don't even have to have a workplace. United Way of Allegheny County is holding three Days of Caring in August and September, where individuals and companies can sign up to serve any of United Way's traditional three focal areas: youth, seniors and struggling families.
The Days, says Christy Stuber, the organization's volunteer initiatives director, "are really important to give people a first-hand perspective on the needs of the community."
Children and Youth Day (Aug. 29) will give volunteers the chance to cheer on parents and kindergarteners at their first day of school at Pittsburgh Arlington, Faison, King, Langley, Miller and Weil. The Day for Seniors and Adults with Disabilities (Sept. 4) will help assess seniors' homes for falling and fire hazards and perform health and safety repairs for Homewood families. For the Sept. 12 Day for Financially Struggling Families, volunteers will sort food at the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank and pass out food at its Produce for People site, as well as conducting more home repairs in Homewood.
"To go out and cheer a kindergartener on their first day seems like an easy and fun activity," Stuber says. But she points to a report from the University of Pittsburgh Office of Child Development, which cites research showing that encouraging attendance pays off. Not only does chronic kindergarten absenteeism result in lower school performance in first grade, but the first day itself means a lot. Kids who miss their first day go on to miss twice as many days as those who attend school from the beginning.
Last year, United Way had 2,000 participants in their Days of Caring events; Stuber believes volunteering is a very important part of giving: "It's the interaction that we have with the people that we serve," she says, "that is really special."
Writer: Marty Levine
Source: Christy Stuber, United Way of Allegheny County

What has 1,000 bells and a sip and savor tent?

In its 30th year, Family House's signature fundraising event, the Polo Match at Hartwood Acres on Sept. 7, just keeps getting better.
Family House provides 160 affordable rooms, complete with transportation and food pantries, for patients and their families who are in town for serious or lengthy medical treatments. "The need gets greater and greater every year, as people need more and more medical treatment," says Bob Howard, Executive Director of Family House. The need "comes at all income levels and at all strata. We're seeing an increased demand mostly in transplants and trauma. The Veterans Administration is using us a lot, as well as West Penn [Allegheny Health System Hospitals] and UPMC."
Some transplants can require patients and their families to be here for a year and a half to two years. "You can imagine the cost in terms of family expenses – it's huge," he says. "Our average length of stay is four to five days, but that keeps creeping up as the longer lengths of recovery for more complex procedures continue to grow."
The annual Polo Match raises $150,000-200,000 a year for Family House. "It's a matter of getting people to come to polo not only to have fun … but to understand our mission."
New this year at the Polo Match is a Sip, Savor & Shop tent featuring Narcisi Winery, Donato’s and other food and shopping venues, as well a young professionals' tent sponsored by Young Business Leaders of Family House. The organization has already distributed about 1,000 bells for attendees to decorate and label with their city names to show how far Family House reaches. Normally, each side rings a single bell when its team scores, but this year Howard expects to hear 500 bells per side.
"It's a lot of fun," he says, "and for people who have not experienced polo, it's a unique way to spend the day and meet a lot of people."
Says Julie Hughes, president of Fifth Third Bank Western Pennsylvania, which is presenting this year's match: "It's a mission we as a leadership team in this affiliate have a passion around, so we're excited to be able to take a deeper role this year." Although the bank has sponsored parts of the Polo Match in the past, this is its first year as lead sponsor. Bank employees will work serving dinners in Family House homes this year as well.
Polo Match ticket packages may be purchased here (www.familyhouse.org/events/polo/‎).
Writer: Marty Levine
Sources: Bob Howard, Family House; Julie Hughes, Fifth Third Bank Western Pennsylvania

Pearl Club aims to help urban girls toward their goals, especially college

Tamasia Johnson is a Promise Coach, part of a mentoring program helping Pittsburgh Public School kids take advantage of the Pittsburgh Promise college scholarship program. But she thought an extra step was needed to help local girls become Promise-ready.
So Johnson started The Pearl Club as another mentoring resource for young women from Pittsburgh's inner-city neighborhoods.
The program was launched in May for high-school freshmen, sophomores and juniors at Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy 6-12 in Oakland and has already grown to include Pittsburgh Westinghouse 6-12 students in Homewood.
"What I'm trying to do is create a sisterhood for young women based on certain values: strength, empowerment and success," says Johnson. The program aims to encourage participants to graduate from high school and attend college. "A lot of young women aren't given a lot of opportunity or are in environments where they can succeed despite their situation.
"We just don't go in front of a group of students and say, 'This is what college is like,'" she says of Pearl Club sessions. "We're in the room presenting them with ways to solve problems. We give girls a mentor and we also focus on setting a goal." Each girl then posts her goal on the Pearl Club blog and tracks its progress there.
Club members, Johnson says, "learn together, build together and build trust. That's a support system that college women need and women need throughout their lives."
The Pearl Club will hold its first public event, called “The Pearl Club presents … Promise-ready Pearls, that’s the goal!” on August 17 at the Squirrel Hill branch of Carnegie Library to show girls of all ages the club’s fundamentals and opportunities.
Johnson hopes this fall to expand from the current 22 students in two schools to include meeting sites at two local churches. In the meantime, she is very pleased with the local response: "It's actually taken off faster than I thought it would!"
Writer: Marty Levine
Source: Tamasia Johnson, The Pearl Club

Game of Drones, Robot Takeover, Emergency Tetherball, more at Mini-Maker

There's nothing "mini" about the collection of maker projects kids can see demonstrated or make themselves at the third annual Pittsburgh Mini Maker Faire on Aug. 18 at Buhl Community Park and the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh on the North Side.
Co-presented by the museum and HackPittsburgh, Mini-Maker is bringing together groups involved in 3-D technology, robots, electronics, indie crafts, sustainable living and more.
“New projects at this year’s Pittsburgh Mini Maker Faire include floating origami, electronic stuffed animals, steampunk fashion, robot wars and lots more,” says Bill Schlageter, the museum's director of marketing. “I’m particularly looking forward to seeing the Girls of Steel FIRST Robotics team demonstrate their 2013 Frisbee shooting, pyramid climbing robot, EVE.”
This year's makers include: Game of Drones (a drone –a personal unmanned air vehicle – that plays basketball with ping pong balls; Rookie of the Gear Pitching Machine  (a large-scale catapult created at the museum's MAKESHOP gets its trial run before debuting at PNC Park; and the Emergency Tetherball Kit (through which the old game gets a makeover for any streetlamp or pole).
Schlageter says he hopes kids attending the Faire will enjoy "the best of DIY creativity … and be inspired to make, create, learn, invent, craft, recycle, build, think and play all year long."
Writer: Marty Levine
Source: Bill Schlageter, Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh

Hive releases its first grants for kids' connected learning

Hive Pittsburgh has made its first three grants to programs for tweens to young adults, all aimed at promoting connected learning: the idea that kids learn better when they are genuinely interested in a subject, work with peers and connect with the larger community.
STARTup SOMETHING, featured in Kidsburgh, received $10,000 to take participating teens to local tech start-ups, pairing them with mentors and teaching them about entrepreneurship and the perseverance needed to make such companies successful. It's a project of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Pittsburgh.
STARTup SOMETHING was chosen because it helps with local workforce development efforts, says Ryan Coon, program officer at The Sprout Fund, which administers the Hive, and because it expands the mentor pool for Big Brothers Big Sisters.
Another recipient of $10,000, the Avonworth Pittsburgh Galleries, was chosen because "it put a lot of leadership and management responsibility in the hands of the kids," he says, "and for the community connections to galleries and museums and other strong cultural assets we have in the city."
For this project, Avonworth High School kids will manage the art exhibition spaces on their campuses. Curators from the Pittsburgh Glass Center, Carnegie Museum of Art, Toonseum and the Mattress Factory will be the students' mentors during the school year, helping them create exhibits in tune with the partnering museums. The project will culminate with an art show by participants.
The final grant of $15,000 went to Power Up Homewood, which The Andy Warhol Museum has been running for several years. For its Hive program, Power Up will take 8th and 9th grade Westinghouse High School girls to visit the Greater Pittsburgh Coliseum, a Homewood event venue and cultural center. From there, the kids will explore their neighborhood's history and current issues and use silk-screening, graphic design, GPS data collection and mapping to form a creative response. The project will be displayed on the Warhol's website, Trolley Station Oral History Center and Carnegie Museum of Natural History.
Combining art-making with media-savvy storytelling is "a bridge between the hands-on creativity and the more technical creativity, which is something that was really unique about the project," Coon says.
Sprout will work with Hive grant recipients to connect them with other investors, he adds. "A lot of times what we're investing in is the people behind it," he says of Hive and other Sprout projects. "What we like to do is stay involved with those people and help them become leaders in whatever community they are serving."
Sprout will be documenting each project's progress and telling their stories on the Hive website. Coon believes these projects, and future Hive grants to be announced as early as next month, "can be replicated elsewhere – not just replicated but revised and made unique for every context."
Writer: Marty Levine
Source: Ryan Coon, The Sprout Fund

STEM innovations, all in 7-minute bursts, at STEM Summit

ASSET, which helps school districts throughout the state implement programs for teaching STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects within any type of class, is co-sponsoring the Pittsburgh STEM Summit this year for the first time. Because the summit was instituted by the Pittsburgh Technology Council, ASSET Executive Director Cynthia Pulkowski believes it's a good move for her educational nonprofit.
"We think it's important to get behind organizations like the Tech Council and their work" in developing ways to share tools and promising practices in STEM-focused learning.
The idea behind the Summit is to bring together school districts with businesses, nonprofits and other groups working to make sure local students are ready for college and careers. "Business is such a big stakeholder in the programs school districts are developing for career readiness," Pulkowski notes.
This year's event on Aug. 15 includes two keynote speakers and 14 very quick presentations – all seven minutes long – followed by Q&As, along with opportunities for participants to get to know other local organizations and their leaders.
The morning keynote speaker is Gil Taran, CEO of iCarnegie, a Carnegie Mellon University company that creates new educational and workforce development programs. The afternoon program features Mario Livio, a senior astrophysicist at the Hubble Space Telescope Science Institute and author of multiple books, including most recently Is God A Mathematician?
The brief presentations include:
  • Spooktacular STEAM with Specter Studios, about the Adventures in Technology program, which immerses students in tech business issues
  • Arts & Bots, from The Ellis School, about their use of the Hummingbird Robotics Kit to create interdisciplinary STEAM lessons (involving STEM subjects with the arts added)
  • Bots IQ The Smart Sport, concerning the Pittsburgh chapter of the National Tooling and Machining Association's creation of BotsIQ, a competition where students design and build robots for a gladiator-style contest and learn about associated careers 
"I'll be interested in hearing what everybody says," remarks Pulkowski. "I always look at the Summit as: How can we partner with the other presenters there?"
Writer: Marty Levine
Source: Cynthia Pulkowski, ASSET

Build it and they will check stuff out

Tricia George was strolling through Millvale in 2007 with her landlord, Brian Wolovich, when they decided to do something about all the dilapidated buildings they saw in town.
They decided to start a library. It helps that Wolovich also happens to be a member of the borough council and a teacher.
"Outside of the Millvale High School library, Millvale has never had a public library," George says. "And Millvale High School shut down many years ago."
Plus, she says, the rates of local students attaining high-school diplomas and college degrees were also lower than those in the Pittsburgh metro area.
"It was a very small idea" when it began, George says. Now the Millvale Community Library will open on Aug. 18 with a day-long celebration featuring yoga, story time, bands, food and more.
It's really a community center "with the name of a library," she says, although of course it is a full-service library, offering books, CDs and DVDs to borrow. But it also has a wildlife habitat in back, as well as community garden spaces and a performance stage. "Eventually, there will be a tool library in the basement," says George, who is now secretary of the board of trustees, which Wolovich heads.
Their group raised enough money by 2009 to buy two buildings next to each other. The library is housed on the first floor of 213 Grant, with apartments above it, while 211 Grant is being renovated for artists, businesses and other renters.
"It's a relatively small library, especially for the Pittsburgh area," she admits – and especially compared to the Carnegie branches. But it already has several fall activities planned, including a woodworking makeshop by the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh and a children's arts and crafts program.
George seems most proud that the library was a community effort, with 1,000 volunteers who put in 5,000 hours over the past half decade.
"The library project has given them a place to come together and a purpose for coming together," she says. "It will go on as long as those people are involved. You can't look at any one group of people and say, 'They built this library.' It's been a gracious contribution from a large group of people."
Writer: Marty Levine
Source: Tricia George, Millvale Community Library

Changing the foster kid experience, one bag at a time

Bridgette Jodon's journey to July's $1,000 Awesome Pittsburgh grant began with a very simple idea.
Even when Bridgette was single, just a few years ago, she knew she wanted to become a foster parent. But several family members became ill, and she put the notion on hold.
Then she met her future husband, Jason, who said he was open to adoption. They married in March 2012 and live in Natrona Heights, where they decided to start a family. But Bridgette developed thyroid cancer.

That didn't stop her from becoming involved in her church's charity, which focuses on services for kids in the foster system. By the time she had finished her cancer treatment in January 2013 and was okay, she knew what she had to do.
"I had just sat and wept one night over these babies who are having a hard time," she recalls.
According to the federal Department of Health and Human Services' U.S. Children’s Bureau, more than 250,000 American children enter the foster care system every year, and half will remain there without reuniting with their parents. Every year, more than 20,000 children age out of the system without being adopted. Of those who leave the system at 18 (or age 21, in Pennsylvania), they are more likely than the average kid to have dropped out of school, be poor and unemployed and, for nearly 40 percent of them, to become homeless.
"I don't think any of us could rest on the statistics," says Bridgette Jodon, who is a special ed teacher in the Highland School District. But she admits she cannot fix the system. So she devised a small change.
Jodon had noticed that kids arriving at their foster homes usually carried their few belongings in a trash bag.
"Of all the things I saw, I couldn't get that out of my head," she says. "It was just inappropriate. I said, this is just unacceptable. It's something we can change easily and show the children that we care."
So she decided to begin purchasing sturdier and more appropriate cinch sacs for the children, which can also be worn as backpacks. She called them G.L.A.D. Bags, which plays on the trash bag brand but stands for God’s Love And Devotion. Then she began to raise money to fill them with items the kids could use: toothpaste, toothbrushes, hair brushes, deodorant, shampoo, conditioner, body wash, socks, small fleece blankets, journals, pencils, small comfort toys and luggage tags. The Awesome Pittsburgh grant will allow her to buy the cinch sacs; she is still seeking donations of the items.
"It's so much more dignified than handing them a trash bag," she says. "We just want to change what we can for them, to be protective of their hearts and what they are going through. We want to say: 'Even though this is a difficult time, we are taking care of you,' and just giving them things that are theirs – 'This is your journal, this is your toothbrush.'"
The Jodons began welcoming their first foster children last week. The kids stayed for three days, then were reunited with a family member. "That was a heart breaker," Bridgette admits. "But that's the goal."

Do Good:
Interested in becoming a foster parent yourself? Learn about it here.
Writer: Marty Levine
Source: Bridgette Jodon; Awesome Pittsburgh
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