MLK Blog

Martin Luther King Jr.’s holiday is a day that is appreciated by many because it is a day off from work or school. And for some it’s much needed following the hustle and bustle of the holidays. According to First Lady Michelle Obama and many other advocates, however, it is the Martin Luther King Jr. National Day of Service, which is the country’s largest day of civic engagement.

We at KEYS Service Corps agree and celebrate the life of Dr. King by performing service projects on that day of remembrance. When you think about it, this is what Dr. King would have wanted, right? I mean he was a man of the people, he inspired and he empowered.

“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?” – Dr. Martin Luther King.DSC_0476

So…just what did KEYS members do to make a difference? I’m glad you asked. All 60 something of us met up at the Carnegie Library of Homestead (510 East Tenth Avenue, Munhall, PA 15120) to help the staff with some general maintenance and upkeep duties. After exchanging some greetings with muffins and juice in hand, we then set out to get things done!

First, we split up into four groups to:

  1. Clean the music hall,
  2. Apply a fresh coat of paint to the      hallways nearest the pool, batting cages and the soon to be steam lab      studio,
  3. Dust book shelves,
  4. Sterilize the Athletic Club weight room,      gym floor, locker rooms & track

I jumped at the opportunity to be a member of the team that tackled the Athletic Club, and what an experience that was. I know how disappointed I am in people who use gym equipment, sweat on it for an hour and then just walk away. It’s disgusting! With that said, I know we did the library some service by wiping down every piece of equipment and machine in the facility. We also freshened up the track with a good mopping and cleared dust off all of the rails & banisters. In the locker rooms, patrons can feel better about stuffing their personal belongings in the rentals too!DSC_0530

One of the other great things we got to do while performing this service act was inform others about AmeriCorps. Since many people were working out at the Athletic Club, there were moments where people would ask – ‘Who are all of you?,’ ‘Why are you doing this?,’ and my favorite ‘Am I in your way?.’ This gave all of us a chance to really stress the importance of KEYS Service Corps and our mission to build up the communities we serve in. I’m one of five members who serve at a site in Homestead during the week. In fact, on Tuesdays my site (YouthWorks) provide afterschool programming for youth at Propel Andrew Street, who also venture over to the library other nights of the week.

In all, it was really cool to also see all of programs and services the Carnegie Library offered. If I can be honest, I never expected to see a workout room with that much equipment in it. It got me thinking about joining myself.

Yep, The Athletic Club @ the Carnegie Library of Homestead has no initial fee and no contract. A one-day pass is $10 for students and adults, while a monthly membership will cost you $35/$32. There is also the option to get a pool only membership for $28. (For more information or to see their hours of operation you can visit the Carnegie Library’s website at http://carnegieofhomestead.com.)

But, aside from learning about the club, it was great to know we were doing something good that would make an impact on others. All of the Carnegie Library staff was so appreciative of our hard work. And it makes sense. We, too, often have so much going on that we neglect little things like dusting stairwells or racks of books. A day like MLK Day of Service makes everyone just feel proud about the area they work in.

Hopefully after reading this you are now moved to celebrate the legacy of Dr. King with action next year. But, rather than waiting for that preset Monday in January, get up and do something now. You can visit www.pittsburghcares.org to find out where and how you can do get involved immediately.DSC_0497

It may seem like you are one person doing something small, but when we all get down and get our hands dirty it will inspire change!

“An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” – Dr. Martin Luther King

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The Tireless Project: Getting Muddy in Memory of 9/11

Perhaps we were mournful optimists or just “head over heels” for doing a community service project, in this case head over heels in mud, a group of pursuing AmeriCorps members gathered to clean one of Pittsburgh’s rivers of litter and filthy excrements. 1236569_950611345805_381604514_nCombining forces with Allegheny CleanWays, a non-profit in Pittsburgh, we hiked to the Carrie Furnace Riversweep at the Monongahela River to begin our upheaval. At first, it was like entering a park preserve with high grassy meadows, caterpillars on our fingertips, and deep foliage of trees surrounding us. The crisp morning air breathed a fresh scent of Autumn, and with gardening gloves and shovels in hand, we set upon a trail to the river. Being the diligent KEYS Service Corps members that we are, coming to the threshold immediately of having to whack our own trail to the river didn’t wipe the smile from our faces. Bottles of unidentifiable liquids, Styrofoam containers, broken glass, sandals, beer kegs surrounded us and we set to work of disposing the litter. The service workers and representatives of Allegheny CleanWays shared with us their motto, to “engage and empower people to eliminate illegal dumping and littering in Allegheny County.” As littering and illegal waste degrades our community and quality of life, we were superheroes trying to improve the quality of life. I set my sight on a challenge right away when I spotted a barrel, knee deep in muddy waters. With the help of a few girls, we shoveled and scooped, dragged and carried it to be recycled. Among the various challenges of the day were refrigerators, barrels, and my own personal adversary, tires. We weren’t going to let a couple dozen stubborn tires tire us out! After much pulling and prodding, we were able to roll the tires to be taken to a dump with muddy faces and clothes to show for it.1185297_950610238025_1478962154_n When I asked returning AmeriCorps member Kyle if his expectations were met at the end of the project, he replied, “Well, I certainly didn’t expect to be working with ticks or to get such a work out!” I will say, we work hard for America, and my father was right, hard labor does pay off. This program is a collaborative endeavor of several organizations with a common interest in the waterways of Pittsburgh. The Tireless Project was launched in 2003 by the Three Rivers Rowing Association. Since its beginnings, more than 2,600 volunteers have extracted 173 tons of debris, including 2170 tires and 310 bags of recyclables from the rivers’ shores. It certainly is a “tirefull” tireless project.carrie furnace

 

Building a Kaboom! Playground in Homewood

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by Katie Woods

One of the most moving experiences I have been involved in during my term of service with AmeriCorps was the opportunity to participate in the building of a playground in Homewood. On April 13th,  the Homewood Children’s Village, teamed up with Kaboom! to build a playground in just one day. There were over two hundred people at this event, which truly exemplified this community coming together for their children.

Although the actual playground was built in a day, it took months of planning before everything was ready for the build. As part of the planning, I attended several group meetings to help with the planning process. One particular meeting allowed for children of Homewood to design their dream playground. These designs were presented to the group and after some alterations, were voted on by the community for a final selection. This meeting also allowed for children to participate in setting up rules for the playground. These rules would be posted at the end of the building process.

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When it was time for Build Day, we were all eager to begin. We came together to do warm ups and we were then split into predetermined teams. I was part of the “mulch team” and there was quite a bit of mulch. We began with a mountain of mulch early in the morning and by the end of the day my team had dispersed this throughout the entire playground. Other teams worked on painting signs, mixing the foundation cement, assembling benches, planters, and the actual playground structures.

The lunch break we were given was a time for people to come together to talk about what we were doing, and why we were doing it. I was able to talk to one woman who was pleased to see something positive happening in Homewood, especially after the violence that had occurred earlier in that same week. Many people talked about how excited they were to bring their own children to play there. Overall the atmosphere was hopeful and ambitious.

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After six hours of hard work the playground was complete, but not ready to be played on. It was roped off to settle for one week and everyone was invited to attend the opening at the block party on April 20th. The block party was also a huge success. The kids were so excited to be able to finally play and explore their new playground. The tire swing became a quick favorite as they learned how to spin it and fit as many kids as possible at one time. For me, the best part was watching the community come together and seeing the smiles on every child’s face as they played in a safe space in their community. There was a sense of pride felt by all for being a part of the building process. This is the Homewood I want people to envision when they think of the neighborhood. I want them to think of all of the people who came together to create a space where children can run, play and just be kids.

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.

Teaching Kids the History of Their Town

by Joey DeSantis

Until starting my term of service with AmeriCorps, I had always thought of school-age students as pawns in the game of community service.  They were the pieces that the adult players got to move around.  It was the adults who got passionate, made all the necessary personal connections in the community, and then asked a classroom of students to do a specific thing at a specific time.  Just show up and follow the directions.  In my hometown of Danville, PA, I didn’t even have to leave my school to do good in the world.  Bring in your box-tops, it helps people!  Bring in your old toys, your canned goods!  Put in them in the corner of the office near the fundraiser shirts!

My idea of community service changed, however, when myself and two other AmeriCorps members, Andrew Gidley and Jessica Malingowski, had to come up with a service project of our own for our 6th grade students at Propel McKeesport Charter School.  At first glance, everything seemed pretty routine.  We were going to interview with people from different organizations in the city to determine what exactly we might do to help.  Once we figured that out, it was just a matter of recruiting the kids.  And it wasn’t like we’d be hurting for project ideas either; McKeesport, like many old steel towns and cities surrounding the newly rebounded Pittsburgh, got hit hard when steel moved elsewhere, and is now generally seen as a “down-and-out” kind of place–a place that most people only hear about in the news after a shooting.  At first, that’s all that McKeesport–the place where I went to school–was to me.

Until, inevitably, we got passionate about stuff.  Though we were far from any idea about what we were going to do for a community service project.  Rather, the five interviews we were required to conduct had gone horribly right and we found ourselves pacing around very importantly, cluelessly, and wanting to do ‘community service’ very badly.  After all, our interviews with member of the community (a librarian, an after school program director, and the newspaper’s managing editor among others) had taught us a ton about McKeesport’s history!

For those of you who are not familiar with that other fork in the river thirty minutes south of Pittsburgh, McKeesport is the second largest city in Allegheny County, and anyone over sixty can tell you (and did in fact tell us) that at one time you would have believed it.

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This is a photograph of McKeesport taken about sixty years ago.  The city was once home to four stage theaters, an outdoor mall, and the National Tube Works factory:  the world’s leading producer of iron pipeline, hence the city’s nickname Tube City.  McKeesport even made its own line of Tube City Beer!  And if you were just visiting from outside the county to do all your Christmas shopping, you might have tried the Penn-McKee Hotel:  the same place where two young politicians, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, met in 1947 to debate the impending threat of Communism.  Indeed, from roughly 1910 to 1960, there was no need to go to Pittsburgh.  McKeesport had it all!  But like many of the places in which my fellow AmeriCorps members currently serve, the steel industry moved elsewhere and the city never recovered.

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This is a modern Google street view of the same intersection (5th and Walnut) shown above. You can still see the columns of the bank on the left side.

Well, I could have learned all of that and more online if I had wanted to (tubecityonline.com is a great resource for McKeesport history).  But what made us truly care about McKeesport was hearing about its past from the people who actually lived it.  Jess and I definitely won’t forget when an 83-year-old store owner broke into tears in the middle of our interview.  When I asked him what McKeesport was like as a boy, his daughter had the foresight to grab a box of tissues and set it in front of him before he began.  He told us how safe he felt playing ball with his friends at night, and how nobody had to worry about making a curfew so as not to get caught in the middle of gun or drug violence.  When he told us that he couldn’t see how a group of sixth graders could help to turn things around, it became apparent that we were talking to a man who no longer believed that he would live to see real change.

I began to wonder the same thing myself.  What would be the point of educating kids on how much better living in McKeesport would have been if only they had been born earlier?  What good would a sob story do anyone?  We needed an idea for a project already!  There wouldn’t be a point to riding a wave of nostalgia that the kids weren’t anywhere near old enough to remember.

That’s when we realized that we weren’t old enough to remember it either.  The reason that we wanted to do meaningful community service in McKeesport was because we had taken the time to get to know it, the good and the bad.  On the other hand, the students, even the older ones in 6th through 8th grade, seemed to have very little notion of or pride in their hometown’s past.  Sure, they knew steel was big at one time, but that was about it.  They had been born into a post-industrial McKeesport and, as far as they were concerned, it had always been that way.

Their lack of knowledge, in turn, became our starting point.  Even though we still had no idea what our community service project would be, we knew that, instead of thinking of a service project and recruiting students to help us do things, we wanted the kids physically out into the community so that they could make an informed decision as to what they could do to help.  In short, we wanted to guide them to do what we had originally set out to do:  choose a service project based on gathered information and new-found appreciation for McKeesport.

This learning project began two weeks ago with a trip to the McKeesport Regional History and Heritage Center, which has been our project’s greatest asset thus far.  Walking through the front doors, you’ll see the scull of McKeesport’s world champion rower, John Teemer, suspended from the ceiling.  Walk on a little further and you’ll see a propeller from the plane of McKeesport’s own Hellen Richey:  the first female pilot hired to fly a commercial airliner.  She also flew across the Atlantic with Amelia Earhart, who called her one of the best pilots she had ever flown with.  Keep walking and you’ll come to a ten-foot long 3-D model of the National Tube Works factory where you can get a sense of just how large of a space the factory occupied.  Houses look like specks compared to the gigantic iron plants that hug the river!  I could go on listing all the donated items that McKeesporters have given to the center to be put on display, but the short of things is that we brought the kids to this place and are very glad that we did.

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One of our girls, Carly, lives on 5th avenue (the same street in the above picture) and I saw her eyes go wide when the director showed everyone a picture of the downtown in 1960.  That year they replaced the pavement with marble, and the downtown became a pedestrian-only outdoor mall.   I wish I had a picture to show!  But even more importantly, the kids got to learn about what McKeesport still has today, like the second-largest rose garden in Pennsylvania, at Renziehausen Park; the McKeesport Symphony Orchestra; Swin M. Cash, a 2004 WNBA Olympic gold medalist from McKeesport who donated money for a gym that currently stands in her name, and who recently competed in the 2012 Olympics in London; Harry Lanauze, a surviving member of the famed Tuskegee airmen of WWII.  Not to mention the McKeesport Candy Company, one of the first distributors of the Clarke Bar.

After the presentation, we sent the kids on a scavenger hunt that took them from a 1930’s jukebox, to a stained glass image of Sam Coats (a well-known homeless man in McKeesport) to a one-room school house used in the 1800’s, pictured below.

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In all, the students had a really great time on this trip and so did we.   Personally, I’ve never been more proud of where I serve, and I hope the they start to feel the same way about the city in which they live and/or go to school.  This Friday we are taking them on a bus tour of McKeesport, and one month from now we are securing interviews that our students will conduct with the same people and organizations with whom we spoke.  Again, we still have no idea what we are doing for our community service project.  But we are working hard to ensure that that idea comes eagerly from our students–not just us–and that it is an inspired and organic means to an end.  Then, we can actually start to get things done.

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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Defining Service at Propel Pitcairn Charter School

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by Amanda Peters and Sarah Voels

We are thrilled to be serving the Propel Pitcairn Charter School and are very excited to mentor our students to be great volunteers. We already knew they were charitable individuals having frequently been offered a portion of their animal crackers during snack time. We already knew that they were helpful having witnessed several students dive under tables in an effort to all pick up a rogue crayon. What we could not say for certain was whether or not they could define service.

“Service,”as defined by our Kindergartners is “not laughing at your friend when they are stabbed with a fork.” To be frank, most of the Kindergartners definitions of “service” included not laughing at a friend when some unfortunate thing happened to them. 

As we asked older and older students, the definitions took on a new life. They had diverse opinions on what service entailed; everything from helping someone across the street to saying “thank you.”

Once service was broadly defined, we began developing a project that our students enthusiastically took hold of. They decided that with the cold winter months crowding in on us and no way of encouraging the human race to hibernate three months of the year, that we should conduct a winter accessories drive. They made posters promoting it and even researched how the cold negatively affects the body and why we should keep it warm. Ultimately these items would be donated to a clothing bank in the Pitcairn community to be given to those in need.

The kids, competitive by nature, made the whole effort a contest. After determining that perhaps a grade-wide ice cream/pizza party while wearing jeans was out of the question, we settled on a jeans day (the students wear uniforms) for the grade that collectively donates the most. The students in the after school program collected donations from each homeroom, did the math, and colored in paper thermometers to wittily record the donated numbers. 

All in all, 308 pairs of mittens and gloves, scarves, hats, and coats were donated to those in our school community. We are thankful that our students were so giving and can safely say that service includes a bit more than not laughing at a friends injury.