This article first appeared in Kidsburgh.org, a media partner of NEXTpittsburgh that focuses on making Pittsburgh a better place to raise kids.  

Noelle Conover never dreamed that the nonprofit she and her husband started in memory of their young son Matt would grow so phenomenally in just three years. Now, the number of Matt’s Maker Space locations is approaching 30, including three new spaces that represent “firsts.”

The pandemic was a good time to raise money and build locations, says Conover, including two underway at UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital — Nos. 28 and 29, in the inpatient and outpatient units, which will be the first maker spaces in a mental health facility. And the 30th location is planned for Comer Children’s Hospital in Chicago, which will be the first location outside Pennsylvania when the contract is finalized.

“What’s exciting about Chicago for us is that it’ll be our first one outside of this region, but also our son [Alex] lives in Chicago so it’s still close to home for us,” says Noelle, of Mt. Lebanon. “Every time we put in a Matt’s Maker Space, we try to find a connection back to Matt. They have a beautiful facility there, built 10 years ago, a 200-bed hospital that’s part of the University of Chicago medical system, and they want to add maker space.”

Matt Conover

Matt Conover was 13 when he died in 2002 from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a lymphatic system cancer. UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, where Matt received treatment, was one of the first recipients of a maker space when the Conovers established their foundation and began to build creative spaces to honor his memory.

The Chicago hospital reached out to Anne Fullenkamp at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, who designs all of the Matt’s Maker Space locations.

“Early on, when I didn’t know much about maker space, I went [to the museum] because they were pretty much ahead of the game. They had maker space as early as 2010 and we were just donors,” says Noelle. “Anne and I have developed a great partnership.”

The locations at Western Psych are scheduled to open this fall. Ansys, the software company from where Noelle’s husband David recently retired, has agreed to help pay for their construction. Most Matt’s Maker Space locations cost around $20,000 to $25,000 to design and outfit, including training for staff or teachers, but regulations involving mental health facilities can triple that amount.

David and Noelle Conover in the children’s wing of the Mt. Lebanon Library.

“We’re really excited about those [locations] for two reasons,” says Noelle. “Mental health right now with Covid is huge. With children, we’re seeing the effects of what they’ve been through, so we think it’s important to provide this facility because they’re still kids. You go into Children’s Hospital and it’s bright and cheery — that’s what we’re aiming for at Western Psych.

“And secondly, mental health has such a stigma and we want to get rid of the stigma. What I always say is, my child was diagnosed with cancer and that was horrible, but the community surrounded us. And that’s why we do what we do, because we want to give back. But if my child had been diagnosed with depression, I’m not sure the community would have rallied around us.”

The Conovers decided to put their time and money toward helping other families when their youngest child, Anna, was graduating high school. The couple wanted to thank Mt. Lebanon schools for helping them through rough times and “for taking care of our community,” she says. The principal at Matt’s elementary school suggested a maker space — an idea the Conovers loved. “It’s the kind of kid our son was, one who likes to dream, likes to think outside the box, to create and collaborate and tinker.”

Soon, they established seven maker spaces in the community’s elementary schools, and then began to add maker spaces to places that meant something to the family — hospitals, libraries, community centers.

“Eventually our board said we really should be doing this for places that can’t afford them,” says Conover. “Now we look at schools — are most of their kids on the federal lunch program? We did one at New Castle School District, which is 100 percent on federal school lunch, and one at the Sister Thea Bowman Catholic Academy in Wilkinsburg, which is 100 percent African American … a really great school.”

Noelle Conover with kids in a Matt’s Maker Space.

When Matt’s Maker Space locations open, Noelle says, “we don’t leave. We give the faculty education, professional development. That’s the key: There are maker spaces around the city that are lying unused because the faculty don’t know how to use them. That’s what makes us different. We use a ‘train the trainer’ model and they teach going forward. Then yearly, if they come back to us and need help, we also help with that.”

Though Matt’s Maker Space Foundation was established mostly with the family’s funds, they have received grants from The Grable Foundation, the Alcoa Foundation and others, including individual donations. Ansys agreed to partner on the Western Psych locations because maker spaces can help teach the engineers of tomorrow — people who can dream up new things, says Noelle. “You don’t always get those kinds of engineers from a traditional education setting.”

The Conovers’ oldest child, Megan, is a nurse at Children’s Hospital, where Noelle also works as project coordinator for the survivorship program for kids who beat cancer.

Honoring Matt’s memory, says Conover, “is really the only reason I can move forward. This has been really healing for our family. I always felt that Matt would beat cancer and he’d go around and talk about it, but that’s not the story — the story is that I’m supposed to go around and talk about it. When you pay it forward and do something to help others, it helps you heal and make meaning.”

When she talks with bereaved families, Noelle encourages them to “take the focus off of them. It’s easy to get wrapped up in your bitterness and your anger and sadness, but if you find a way to make meaning out of your child’s death, you can heal.”

Recently, the Conovers made a donation to Carnegie Mellon University’s Gelfand Center, which conducts STEM-focused workshops for K-12 students, among other things. As a result, several CMU students helped to revamp the Matt’s Maker Space website and they are introducing Conover to TikTok.

“People love [our] story,” Noelle says. “I know why — it’s not the traditional way it goes. Losing a child is the worst thing that can happen to anybody, and it’s usually not followed up by anything good. That’s really my goal, to help other parents find a way out. Because your child is not coming back, but you can honor his memory.

“My favorite thing is when a child walks into a Matt’s Maker Space and looks up at their teacher and says, ‘Who’s Matt?’ ”