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.
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.
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.
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.
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.