Above photo: Kobe Trott leads the parade of kids with their adaptive bikes at Heinz Field. Photos by Stephanie Hacke.
Kobe Trott twirled a Terrible Towel from the back of his shiny new bike as he waited to take his first big ride. The landmark day took place in Heinz Field, making the experience even more exciting. He wheeled through the stadium tunnel onto the field, and then there he was on the Jumbotron, shouting, “Go, Steelers!”
The 18-year-old, who has cerebral palsy, has never been able to ride a bike. But Variety — the Children’s Charity came to the rescue, giving him a set of wheels outfitted just for him and his needs.
“I love it,” he said. “I can ride with my friends. I can ride to GetGo.”
Kobe’s family, who live in New Castle, laugh that they’ll now have to keep tabs on him.
“It’s huge for all of us,” said his mom Carrie. “He finally has freedom.”
Kobe is one of 21 kids with disabilities who received individually customized adaptive bikes through Variety’s “My Bike” program this week. Each recipient had the chance to ride their bikes for the first time at Heinz Field in front of a crowd of cheering friends, family and Variety supporters.
“I hope this turns out to be one of the most memorable events in these kids’ lives,” said Andrea Carelli, senior vice president of PNC and co-chair of the “My Bike” program, who hosted the event. The next time they’re sick or in the hospital, Carelli hopes the kids can think back to this moment and it makes them happy.
Variety launched the “My Bike” program in November 2012. Since then, more than 2,500 adaptive bikes, strollers and communication devices have been sponsored for kids in the organization’s 54-county service area in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
“What we’re doing in western Pennsylvania is creating a model,” said Variety CEO Charlie LaVallee. All it takes is creating awareness, finding the kids who have needs, finding the donors and bringing it all together, he said.
“We went on the hunt to raise money, and because of that, we raised a lot of money,” said Leo Gerard, international president of United Steelworkers. “There can be nothing more honorable than doing that so that the kids can have a chance to show their abilities.”
Emma Rooney, 13, of Shaler, received her second bike from the program, having outgrown the first. She likes to ride with her twin sister Maggie. They ride on the side streets near their home. Emma even rode her bike at Open Streets Pittsburgh last year.
“It’s awesome,” she said.
Another bike recipient, Lachlan McConnell, 5, of Hermitage, just wants to be able to ride with his friends.
His mom, Jennifer, laughed: “I’m not going to be able to get him inside!”
About 10 years ago, Justin Brown was seeking an answer to a question that long bewildered him: Why didn’t kids have the supplies they needed to learn in schools? As director of the Pittsburgh Community Storehouse, which made donations to disadvantaged communities, he understood the frustrations of teachers in those neighborhoods.
He learned about the Kids in Need national summit in Columbus, Ohio, which included a session on teacher free stores.
“That’s when I discovered both the need and the solution,” Brown says. “It was an excellent non-profit model, and it’s the model I brought back to Pittsburgh and started to develop.”
In 2009, Brown launched the Storehouse for Teachers, now known as the Education Partnership. Since then, the organization has been a godsend for teachers and kids. Using the idea that a simple pencil can be a power tool that’s packed with potential, the organization puts basic supplies in the hands of kids and their teachers.
During the 2017-18 school year, the Education Partnership provided supplies for 45,000 students in 110 schools. To be a partner school, 70 percent of the student population must be eligible for a free or reduced lunch program.
Every teacher in the school can visit the West End warehouse twice a year and load up on core supplies (papers, pens) and incentive supplies (clothing, toys), and is guaranteed $400 worth of goods. There’s also a lending library for STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) projects with computers and other technology.
“It actually works,” Brown says. “It’s actually doing exactly what it’s supposed to be doing: Impacting the lives of teachers, invigorating them to be alive in their work, and making them feel like they’re being supported.”
In turn, kids are equipped with the supplies they need for educational success. Those basic supplies also go home with kids so they can complete homework assignments and feel confident and prepared in class.
Last month, as Brown prepared to leave his position as executive director, the Kids in Need Foundation brought its national conference to Pittsburgh. A decade earlier, Kids in Need would have had no interest in coming here because there was no comparable local organization.
Justin Brown was the man who made the difference.
“The framework that has been built here is nothing short of extraordinary,” says Josh Whiteside, who succeeded Brown at the Education Partnership. “When you look at the trajectory of what the Education Partnership has accomplished, going from zero to 45,000 students today, that’s remarkable.”
How did Brown, a musician and self-styled entrepreneur, who worked as a bartender and insurance salesman, make the Education Partnership one of the region’s most successful non-profit organizations?
The Education Partnership filled a need. There was no overlap, no charity seeking to fill the same void.
“When I went to the Heinz Endowments what they told me was `Justin, we hope and pray for your success because we’ve launched so many programs to help kids get educated that have fallen flat because they don’t have the basic school supplies,’ ” Brown says.
Brown also approached stakeholders – schools, teacher unions and boards of education – to see what they needed and assure them he was there to help. It was a pure grassroots campaign. Brown now finds validation in the number 3,580. That’s how many teachers came through Education Partnership’s doors in the West End last year.
Julie Erb, a kindergarten teacher at Martin Elementary School in New Kensington, has “shopped” at the Education Partnership for three years.
“Supplies like crayons, scissors, pencils, glue sticks, paper and so much more help to make learning fun and engaging for my students,” she says. “These basic essentials become costly for teachers. Thanks to the Education Partnership, I save hundreds of dollars a year with the generous supplies we receive from them. Not to mention it’s fun to shop there too! The staff and volunteers are so welcoming and helpful. … Every year I thank them from the bottom of my heart.”
There is still more work to be done. There are 85 eligible schools on a waiting list for the Education Partnership’s services.
“It’s terrible saying no (to schools),” Brown says. “Especially when our per-student cost is less than a school district’s cost. When we can buy 300 pencils for a dollar and tell a school we can’t give them pencils, it’s very difficult.”
Filling that void will be now be left to Whiteside. Formerly executive director of the non-profit Beverly’s Birthdays, Whiteside is confident the foundation Brown has built will serve the organization well in the future.
“I lovingly call Justin Professor Brown,” Whiteside says, “because the opportunity to have him stick around to teach me about the history of the organization, to introduce me to the key people who helped build this, to let me know the pitfalls he has fallen into so that I don’t, the opportunity to have someone like that right next to you, who not only knows the organization but started the organization, is pretty rare.”
Brown plans to spend more time with his family and perhaps find a charitable outlet for his musical talents. But his legacy will be the Education Partnership. Being able to host the Kids in Need Foundation’s national conference was the cherry on top of everything he hoped to accomplish.
“The goal of any executive director is to create an organization that would live beyond his term,” Brown says. “And I think the fact I did grow it on my watch to the point where it warranted us hosting the national summit, it was a point of pride, a sense of accomplishment. What a great time to hand it over.”
Instead of using crayons or paint, fill in your drawing with yarn. This week’s Maker Monday activity, Yarn Art, makes use of all those scraps of yarn leftover from knitting scarves and crocheting afghans.
Yarn Art is a fun way to learn about colors, develop fine motor skills and explore creativity. The artwork can be as basic as stick figures or more involved according to the skill level and age of kids.
Yarn in multiple colors
Markers or pencils
Begin with a drawing on the paper. Choose the colors and trim the yarn to the length needed. Apply glue to one color area at a time. Set the yarn into the space, filling the space with color.
Move on to the next space and continue with other colors. The result is a Van Gogh-like textured image with 3-D swirls of color. But even stick figure images can be fun for smaller kids.
For more Maker Monday projects and other fun stuff for kids, visit the Kidsburgh Activities page.
Laundry time was a total drag for Elijah and Matthew Ortiz.
While mom, Yadi Martinez, washed clothes, the 6- and 8-year-old brothers sat in the apartment building laundry room, anxious to get it over with and find something fun to do.
But a new pop-up library right across the street has saved the day. Sudsy’s Laundromat in South Park Township is where the Libraries Without Borders’ Wash & Learn program launched its first Pittsburgh pilot series, giving kids a chance to be productive while mom does the laundry for free.
The program, geared for kids up to age 8, operates at Sudsy’s on Mondays through August 15. The library story time runs from 10 to 10:45 a.m. From 1:30 to 3 p.m., WQED program manager Shelly Schmidt reads books and engages kids with games like Match the PBS Characters and Sock Basketball.
“The goal of this really is to avoid the summer slump,” Schmidt says. “And help parents realize that learning can happen in everyday spaces.”
Yadi now brings Elijah and Matthew, plus her three grandchildren, to the program at Sudsy’s.
“They have fun,” she says. “It keeps them busy. And who doesn’t like free laundry?”
Libraries Without Borders, a national nonprofit, started in 2007, with the mission to promote access to information in low-income communities and reach people where they are, says Adam Echelman, director of programs.
In 2015, the organization began setting pop-up libraries across New York City – from public parks to bus stations. They found one on a particular street corner to be the most popular. Why? Because it was right in front of a laundromat.
“At laundromats, you have a captive audience for at least 90 minutes,” Echelman says. “And people return weekly because they have to wash their clothes.”
From there, the Wash & Learn program was born. Libraries Without Borders set up programs in urban and rural settings, including New York City, Detroit and Washington DC.
Allegheny County provided the opportunity to enter a suburban market.
Libraries Without Borders partnered with the Coin Laundry Association to help identify laundromats that would be best suited for the programs.
But this is just the start. Organizers are working to create a set of best practices that can be mirrored in other suburban libraries, says Carrie Lane, youth services coordinator for the Allegheny County Library Association.
The program provides four laptop computers for the laundromat that are geared for kid learning. Two are locked on the South Park Township Library page where parents can browse the collection and reserve books. The other two computers are locked on the PBS homepage so kids can explore cool learning opportunities.
South Park Township Library provided 109 books, ranging from kid favorites to young adult and including books for grownups, says Amanda DeKnight, library director. Those books are free for the taking. Or, visitors can sit in the little reading nook while they’re waiting for their laundry.