Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania facing challenges to fulfill its mission
This article by Ann Belser first appeared at NEXTpittsburgh.com, a media partner of Kidsburgh. Sign up here for NEXTpittsburgh’s free newsletter filled with all the latest news about the people driving change in our city and the innovative and cool things happening here. Photo above by Ann Belser.
Lamar Fields spent a week of camp at the Boys & Girls Club in Shadyside, designing and building a robotic fox that — when he gets the programming worked out — will be able to walk and move its head.
At age 9, Lamar of East Liberty does not realize he is following in the footsteps of the boys who learned printing from the same organization in 1904.
The Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania traces its lineage to the old Pittsburgh Newsboys Home in what is now Uptown. The nonprofit organization now has six standalone clubhouses — Pittsburgh clubs are in Shadyside and Lawrenceville — and another eight, soon to be 10, housed in schools throughout Western Pennsylvania. The sites offer a range of programming including academic and STEM enrichment, workforce development, mentoring and sports and recreational activities.
The Shadyside club is set back from Ellsworth Avenue on Brownell Place near the busway. A footbridge over the busway at South Graham Street makes the building an easy walk from East Liberty, Friendship and Bloomfield. Teenagers go there to hang out with friends and play games.
The pool was filled in and that space now houses indoor batting and pitching cages where the young athletes who are members of the nonprofit Pittsburgh Hardball Academy practice.
On a recent Thursday in the gym, Mark Haffner tapped tennis balls to the children in tennis camp that they returned (mostly) across the nets.
The club no longer houses homeless children, but that is how the site got its start.
According to the club’s official history, it was 1885 when Tom Druitt, a printer who had been a newsboy, spotted two newsboys sleeping under wagons in the snow. He brought them home, fed them dinner and gave them a warm place to sleep. That night he had an idea that he should open a home for newsboys and bootblacks.
The organization moved into its first building in Uptown in March of 1893. In 1905, that building was condemned after a broken sewer compromised the foundation, so the 60 boys living there moved into a church until a new building opened in 1910, where Duquesne University is now. Then, in the early 1920s, it relocated to Shadyside.
The Boys and Girls Club in Shadyside took over its current building in 1960, according to the Allegheny County real estate website. And like any 62-year-old, it’s starting to show its age.
The entrance to the building is down a few stairs, so the building is not wheelchair accessible. While the gym floor was recently refurbished, tile floors throughout much of the rest of the building need to be replaced.
About 500 children participate in programs in the Shadyside building, from basketball leagues to summer camps, according to David DiGirolamo, director of the Shadyside club. That number is rebounding, he says. “Before COVID hit, it was probably about 1,000.”
Over the next year, more programs will be added so that more children can be served. Those programs will include a full-blown makerspace complete with power tools and 3D printers.
But the accessibility challenges mean that the building cannot be used for early childhood education or after-school programs.
While there isn’t a plan for a capital campaign for fundraising, the organization has been reaching out to local groups such as the Shadyside Action Coalition to discuss ways that the community and the club can work together more closely, encouraging members of the community to support the Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania.
“It is certainly functional for the moment, but we are interested in pursuing partnerships with individuals and corporations who would be willing to invest in this building which is an investment in our youth, which is an investment in the community,” says Jessi Marsh, vice president of advancement and philanthropy for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania.
The organization employs teenagers who are part of the Pittsburgh Learn & Earn program in which young people are provided with summer jobs and learn the soft skills they need in the workplace, such as being on time for work and being respectful to their coworkers.
“It’s really about workforce development for the region,” says Marsh. The organization’s Artificial Intelligence Pathways Institute, a career development program that introduces high school students to computing, is funded in part by PPG.
While the Newsboys Home served all boys regardless of their race, the Shadyside club started serving girls during World War II.
“The goal back then was to provide a safe haven and also vocation training that was needed at the time; 134 years later, that mission is ongoing,” says Hersh Merenstein, government and foundation relations manager for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania. “This was the first club that was a Boys & Girls club to open in the region and really the overarching mission hasn’t changed, although society’s challenges have.”