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About 50 times last year in Allegheny County, one of Heather Bradley’s doulas — or birthing coaches — helped a couple cope with the delivery of a stillborn baby.

What does someone say to a couple whose child’s life is cut short before it begins?

“We tell them, ‘We want to know about your pregnancy and your baby — did he respond to this music or his dad’s voice? Let’s talk about your baby,’” says Bradley, founder and executive director of Pittsburgh Bereavement Doulas, which started in 2018. “You want to give them control, so you talk about ways to give them back control … [We say] ‘This isn’t the story you’ve planned but this is your baby’s story.”

Bradley will be able to pay her stable of seven sub-contracting doulas thanks to a $15,000 grant from The Pittsburgh Foundation that was announced this month. A total of 36 local organizations received grants — 23 of them for the first time — through the recent funding cycle of the Small and Mighty grants program, a special initiative of The Pittsburgh Foundation for nonprofits with budgets of $600,000 or less.

Pittsburgh Bereavement Doulas help families deal with loss. Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Bereavement Doulas.

The latest round of grants, which total $569,000, benefits small, community-based organizations, many of which are led by and serve people of color. Small and Mighty grantees work to address poverty and inequity by meeting basic needs in areas such as physical and mental health, food, shelter, child care, and out-of-school time, according to the foundation.

Since its inception in 2016, the Small and Mighty program has awarded a total of $2.16 million in grants to Pittsburgh-area groups.

“The Small and Mighty grants program has been as transformative for our foundation as it has for the funded nonprofits,” says Lisa Schroeder, president and CEO of The Pittsburgh Foundation. “The feedback that we have received from our Small and Mighty grantees has led to significant improvements to our grantmaking practices. These include office hours for new applicants, streamlined grant applications, networking events that connect nonprofits to one another and to other foundations, and free workshops to help organizations build their capacity. Over time, these changes have helped us make our grantmaking more accessible and equitable.” 

Young Adult Survivors United helps women like Lisa (last name withheld), a breast cancer survivor, pictured with her husband and daughter (who was born just four weeks prior to her diagnosis). Photo courtesy of Simply Sisters Photography.

Christopher’s Kitchen, which started serving food to families of hospital patients at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh about four years ago, was one of this year’s Small and Mighty grant recipients. The Ben Avon-based group received $20,000.

Joni D’Alessandro, the group’s founder and president, became aware of families who set up shop in hospitals for days or weeks at a time when her stepson died several years ago.

“I was just like ‘This is crazy — why isn’t somebody helping these people?’” D’Alessandro says. “The number is astronomical — the number of families that go into bankruptcy because their kid is in the hospital.”

According to the organization’s application, the $20,000 Small and Mighty grant for Christopher’s Kitchen will be used to add pantries to new units; partner with 412 Food Rescue to provide hot meals once a week; conduct a survey of families to understand the organization’s impact; implement pantry software to track inventory and costs; and hire consultants to develop strategies to strengthen donor relationships.

D’Alessandro started her organization modestly; for years, it operated out of her Dormont home. Today, a grant has enabled her to rent office space at a discounted rate in Ben Avon.

“Not a dime in my pocket, I got in front of [UPMC] and they said ‘This is a gap in our care. Get started — knock yourself out,’” D’Alessandro says with a laugh. “I started talking to people and food started coming in.”

TransYOUniting is a Black- and trans-led organization that provides emergency housing for LGBTQ+ community members ages 18-30. Photo courtesy TransYOUniting.

Shanon Hughes also has experienced that momentum. The social worker, a native of Pittsburgh’s North Side, started The Wellness Collective in October 2019 and plans to use her organization’s $15,000 Small and Mighty grant to start a community bank to direct funds and resources to neighbors in need in Allegheny County. 

Hughes hopes to have the operation up and running by this spring.

“When you work in social services, you’re gonna catch on quickly that a lot of people get turned away — so I put on the ‘personal hat’ to be the person on the other side of the door,” says Hughes. 

“With the community bank … it will be the community who decides how we’re going to support each other,” she adds. “Right now, it comes through me and my team. And that creates blind spots — the answer may be in our neighbors. And I believe very much in leaning into each other.”

One of The Wellness Collective’s services is a virtual “mental wellness speed dating” session, where people in need get seven minutes each to interview potential therapists, counselors and psychiatrists to see if those professionals match their needs and personalities. The group also sometimes provides scholarships for an individual’s first six sessions with the professional.

“Mental health is a sensitive space,” Hughes says. “It does cut out a lot of barriers.”

And, then, there’s Bradley and her doulas. She says many people she works with “have had an experience with themselves or with a friend where they’ve experienced loss — and realized the support’s not there.”

Bradley wants to spread the word about her services to medical professionals. Word of mouth keeps her group alive; she had six calls alone between Christmas and New Year’s Day in 2021.

“We want couples to look at their baby [and ask] what is our number one fear,” Bradley adds. “This is their baby. And they’re going to look past all of that … to feeling joy and happiness at the same time.”

The Community Life Enrichment Foundation was a first-time recipient of a Small and Mighty grant. Photo courtesy The Community Life Enrichment Foundation.

This cycle’s Small and Mighty grantees are listed below. Twenty-three are first-time grantees and are marked with an asterisk:

For more information regarding the next cycle of Small and Mighty grants, visit the program’s website.