My name is Andrew and I serve at an after school program in East Liberty. This is my second year serving with KEYS Service Corps. I’m glad to be back mentoring youth in Pittsburgh!

I have been blessed with a great education throughout grade school and college. In large part I view my time with my youth as an opportunity to share this education with them, which is a task that goes far beyond just sharing knowledge. This task involves teaching them strategies that will empower them to continue to learn confidently in the future, whether I continue to be with them or not.

It seems like most of the kids I tutor just want me to do their work for them. As children, they often don’t understand the importance of doing their own work in order to gain a skill. To some degree they just don’t want to do the work, and try to play off of you to get the answers without working through the steps themselves; in another sense they genuinely need help understanding the concepts. I believe that many of the children I serve need to get a clearer, more consistent idea of how to approach their assignments step by step and, more importantly, need to develop trust in their ability to complete the assignment correctly and trust that they will receive the help they need if they ask for it and wait patiently.

In November, I was having trouble getting through to one elementary aged girl on her math homework; it seemed like she just refused to read the directions and kept getting ahead of herself. So after several attempts of simply telling her to read the instructions, I slowed her down and had her memorize four steps to completing each math problem – read the question, understand any graphs or charts that go along with that question, do your work, and then, only after doing the first three steps, can you write the answer. Later, I made a point of talking to her father at pickup time. He was very appreciative and said he had been telling her the same things.

Now, when I see her doing her homework, she is usually doing it all on her own. I am sure her father has still been reminding her of the lesson she learned. I can see that my instruction made an impact on this child, but I can also see that I am only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to helping her succeed in school.

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A Leaders in Training Service Project

In the North Side of Pittsburgh there is poverty, brokenness, and dejectedness. There is also hope. There are youth that live in the various North Side communities that are transforming themselves and their community. The future is bright because of these students. The Pittsburgh Project is enabling these students to transform themselves and their community. The Pittsburgh Project is a youth development non-profit that has a program called Leaders in Training (LITs). The program is a high school youth development program that aims to develop work skills within the youth and prepare them for college. Part of the leaders’ training involves addressing an issue that plagues the community.

Homelessness is an issue that plagues the North Side. There are whole homeless communities that exist. The communities are often found under bridges. The staff of the LITs,  the students, and I decided that we could make a difference. We decided that we would team up with Light of Life, a homeless outreach, to prepare a meal and serve it to the homeless people. Our meal was spaghetti and meat sauce. We purchased many pounds of spaghetti and gallons of tomato sauce. We served over 150 people all together.

This service project instilled in our youth the importance of service. We wanted them to realize that they could do something about the issue of homelessness. We accomplished this by having them prepare and serve a meal for the homeless that go to Light of Life. The project taught that if a person wants change in the community they must be that agent of change. The accomplishment of the service was an achievement, but there was more purpose behind our service than just feeding those in need.

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The students at the Project are not rich by any means, but they do live in a degree of comfort. They are comfortable enough to be isolated from the issue of homelessness. One of the goals of this project was to have the youth confront this issue firsthand. The students had an opportunity to interact with the homeless people on an individual level.

The interaction was a growth opportunity for our youth. They were forced out of their comfort zone. The students saw homelessness face to face instead of at a distance as they had before. The students were at first tepid when approached by the people at the shelter, but soon warmed up to them after realizing they were people just like themselves. This service project was able to help foster community bonds between our youth and the homeless people.

Homelessness is no longer just a part of our youth’s community that is shunned and ignored. The problem has been personalized. Our youth understand homelessness on an individual level. Now when homelessness is mentioned or brought up in conversation they can think back to when they saw it firsthand. This firsthand experience will enrich them as citizens of their community as they confront problems of homelessness.

My Day as a Personal Assistant

As a KEYS member, I enjoy the opportunities we have to work with organizations around the Pittsburgh area. A few weekends ago, I had the chance to volunteer near my hometown at the Project Prom Shop located in Century III Mall. This volunteer opportunity was a very fun and rewarding experience. I not only got to help young ladies find their perfect dress, but also was able to meet other AmeriCorps members and members of my local community.

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Some students are unable to attend their high school prom due to the expenses. This is the need that Project Prom recognized when it was first launched in 2003 by the Allegheny County Department of Human Services. Since 2003, it has given eligible high school students the opportunity to choose free prom attire from a selection of donated items. Project Prom also recently started renting tuxedos to young men who are attending their prom. Items that are donated include gowns, shoes, jewelry, purses, and other accessories. These items are all donated from local organizations and the general public.

The Project Prom Shop is located in Century III Mall in West Mifflin. The shop contains dressing rooms and volunteers act as personal stylists for the young ladies who are looking to find their perfect dress. As a volunteer, I helped several girls find their dress as well as accessories to wear the night of their prom.

Prom is a very exciting time when you are in high school, so I wanted to make sure that every girl was happy with their prom look. I had fun acting as a dress consultant for the girls that came into the shop. Most girls knew exactly what they wanted and I enjoyed trying to find the dress that fit the vision they had in their heads. One girl in particular had a difficult time finding a dress. She came into the shop right before closing time and could not seem to find one that she loved. After trying on dozens of dresses she found herself loving one that she originally did not want to try on. It was an exciting moment when she decided to choose that as her prom dress. Her family as well as every other family I worked with was extremely thankful which made my experience all the more rewarding.

South Side Beautification Projects

by Dan Slowey

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Our forces assembled at 10 AM in a nondescript parking lot in the South Side. KEYS members and staff were joined by volunteers from other AmeriCorps programs and the community at large, and the entire operation was spearheaded by the wonderfully able staff of Tree Pittsburgh.

After a rousing period of preliminary speechmaking, punctuated by the extemporaneous shoutings of a still-inebriated passerby, we split into groups of 6-8 people and headed off to our respective quadrants of the neighborhood.

Our mission was humble but essential: pick up as much litter as humanly possible, and tend and mulch all existing tree beds within our territory. The author of this report, in his great and noteworthy humility, would be mortified to describe his own personal exploits in great detail. Suffice it to say that although every member of every group was essential to the success of the project, he was the only one who removed not just one but two plastic bags from the tops of the innocent trees through the use of his patent-pending Jumping Rake Swipe Technique.

In the end, the project was truly a massive success. The health of the trees and the sightliness of the South Side community were both greatly enhanced, and there were no reported rake-related injuries. KEYS members live and breathe to get things done for America, and this was a fantastic opportunity to partner with some of our wonderful Pittsburgh neighbors and do exactly that.

What It’s Like to Volunteer at the Inauguration

by Bikim Brown

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The electricity in the air could be felt immediately, there were barricades up and down the parade route to-be, and one could not cross a street without having to walk for blocks to find the nearest crosswalk. My instructions via email told me to be  there at about 1:30 PM, but to arrive up to an hour ahead of time in order to be prompt. I arrived at Gallery Place via DC Metro from the S.E. corner of the city only to find a Convention Center operating on multiple levels. The first door I saw is what I’ll designate as the ’big wig’ entrance which obviously wasn’t for me; from what I understand the helpers enter through the rear. I was directed to an entrance that was about 2 blocks away from the metro entrance that I first believed encountered. The sign read something like ‘Inaugural Ball Ticket Pick-Up.’  I was okay with not being in this crowd; after all I’d come to Washington at the capacity of a participatory servant, not a mere occupant of the weekend’s festivities.

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A Holiday Service Project

by Kyra Forman

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As part of our year of service with KEYS, members are required to plan a service project to carry out with the youth they are serving. The thought of this project was exciting to me, but also a bit daunting. Although a year seems like a lot of time to plan just one project, we all know time flies. Plus, after completing my community asset map (a series of interviews with community leaders/members about the needs and assets of the community we serve, which for me is Homewood) I still didn’t have any definitive ideas in my mind. Then I remember the advice given by the KEYS staff “ask the kids!” Well, before I could do that, I happened to overhear the kids discussing ways to help others with their teacher, in order to write a short essay to be put in a drawing for a free bike. The kids had great ideas, and one idea especially stuck out to me: helping the elderly. So, from there, the kids, teachers and I came up with the idea to visit a senior home, where we would sing holiday songs and pass out handmade cards. The holidays are a magical time, but they can also be lonely for those that live alone or don’t have family nearby. For this reason, I really liked our plan.

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After deciding on what to do for the project, I then had to think about which senior home to visit. After contacting a few places, I decided upon Vincentian de Marillac nursing home located in Stanton Heights. I was a little bit disappointed that I wasn’t able to locate anywhere to visit directly in Homewood, but Stanton Heights is about three miles away, so it is still in the “East End.” Vincentian de Marillac said that they could handle about fifteen to twenty kids which at first worried me because there are seventy-five children in all in the second grade. However, the teachers and I decided that it would be best for just the “positive” students (students who exemplify the ROAR standards –respect, on task, appropriate and responsible) to go. This worked out well because there were exactly sixteen of them. Yet, I still wanted to include the rest of the children, so decided that they could make the cards that we would deliver to the fifty plus residents. Now the fun part began! Singing! For two weeks the children and I practiced our holiday songs during the last period of the day. The kids were always eager and excited for this time (I’m sure it had nothing to do with getting out of class). Each day they’d ask “Are you getting us today Ms. Kyra?” During our periods together we also discussed why people live in senior homes and what to expect. Finally on December 18, the day before the trip, we made holiday cards and were ready to go!

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I can’t say that I wasn’t nervous the night before about how the trip would go. Many questions ran through my mind such as “Would the kids be nervous? How would they react? Would they be well behaved? Would they remember the songs? Would the residents enjoy it?”etc., etc…However, all my fears were put to rest the next day, because the trip went fabulously! We arrived at Vincentian de Marillac around 1 o’clock and sang for about an hour. We traveled through the halls stopping in rooms singing “Rudolph”, “Jingle Bells”, and “Walking In a Winter Wonderland” The whole place was filled with the sounds of children singing, one of the most uplifting things you’ll ever hear in my opinion. Although some of the residents couldn’t hear or speak well, their joy was evident by the tapping of their feet and the smiles on their faces. Two residents were even moved to tears when they were handed their handmade cards. Overall, it was an awesome experience for everyone involved and the kids even got cookies to take back to school! On the way back, one of the students looked at me and said “I want to do that again.” It was great to share the joy of service with the kids and I hope I can do another service project with them throughout the year!

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Cheap Eats on Carson Street

by Annie Merrill and Maggie Tully

Any AmeriCorps member will be quick to tell you that money is not our main motivation in signing up for a year of service. Living on the modest AmeriCorps stipend can be particularly challenging for members who aren’t used to sticking to a strict budget or don’t have much experience in managing their personal finances. Luckily for KEYS members and other AmeriCorps members serving in Pittsburgh, East Carson Street on the South Side is full of discounted and delicious lunch and dinner specials, guaranteed to fill you up and help you save a buck. Here’s just a few tried and true cheap eats on Carson Street:

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