Adrienne Parkes. Photo courtesy of the Bartko Foundation

Adrienne Parkes had a plan to escape the poverty that grinds down so many single mothers. She had begun taking classes at CCAC and was working toward becoming a social worker.

Her car, however, had other plans. It was constantly on the verge of breaking down. Getting herself and her son to school and back always seemed like a bridge too far.

Then she found a link online to something called The Bartko Foundation, almost by accident.

“They gave me a $5,000 donation to get a car,” says Parkes, 33, who now lives in Sewickley. “I traded in my car that was falling apart and along with the $5,000, got a new vehicle in 2014. I went back to school in 2013. I was going to CCAC and transferred to the University of Pittsburgh.”

Parkes graduates from Pitt this week.

The Bartko Foundation isn’t particularly well-known, even in its hometown of Pittsburgh. But its model is so simple, so obvious, that one is left wondering why it isn’t done everywhere.

“I have never, ever tried to explain to someone what we do and they don’t at least get excited—‘Why didn’t somebody think of that before?’” says Carl Perkins, the nonprofit Bartko Foundation’s executive director.

Their efforts are targeted specifically to minority single mothers in Western Pennsylvania. Through partnerships with community organizations (nonprofits, churches, businesses), they identify candidates who are actively working to become self-sufficient.

“What we do is look for effort by the applicant,” explains Perkins. “It’s not just sending in an application—‘What is your part in this?’”

These are women who are motivated and actively working toward accomplishing their goals—like getting a particular job or going to school—but something is holding them back. It might be reliable transportation or the cost of childcare or closing costs on a house. Grants are awarded, tailored to each individual, rather than using a one-size-fits-all approach.\

The Bartko Foundation focuses on four broad categories where small investments can make a difference: education, transportation, housing and employment. These things are verifiable—if someone is working toward a degree, or buying a house, there are documents.

A Pittsburgh family of one adult, infant and preschooler needs $49,504 annually in order to be considered self-sufficient, according to the Pennsylvania Self-Sufficiency Standard. Families with preschool-aged children headed by women are more likely to be poor, due to the cost of childcare and difficulty of finishing school. It’s estimated that four out of 10 families headed by single mothers in Pittsburgh live in poverty.

The Bartko Foundation was started by the three Bartko sisters with money acquired from various business ventures. Now it’s supported by donations and three annual fundraisers.

On April 29, the organization held its annual Irene’s Dream Luncheon & Boutique Shopping event, where awards were given out. This year, LaTrenda Sherrill was honored as Volunteer of the Year, and LaShaun Martin received the Irene O. Bartko Award for self-sufficiency. In addition to the events, supporters can donate to the Bartko Foundation anytime by shopping via Amazon Smile or Rachel’s Cure by Design.

Michael Machosky is a writer and journalist with 18 years of experience writing about everything from development news, food and film to art, travel, books and music. He lives in Greenfield with his wife, Shaunna, and 10-year old son.