The Knoxville teen advisory board.

Activities for teens are “more than needed—they’re beyond needed” at the Knoxville branch of Carnegie Library, says Brandi Cox, 25, who runs teen programming here after growing up in nearby St. Clair Village. “I cannot think of one time where I had an opportunity to come to a library that opened my eyes to new experiences and opportunities.”

She shows off the teen space, with its couch and chairs and kid-painted mural of local sites and active children. “Teen programming happens wherever we can find a space,” she says. “It is really to create a strong-willed and experienced teen who can share their experiences and create a better community.”

In Knoxville, the kids get summer reading parties, parenting classes if they need it and cooking classes, often downstairs in the simple basement room, using herbs and vegetables from the garden out back, which they’ve helped cultivate.

“And they absolutely love it,” Cox says. Staff from the local branch of the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank run the library class, focusing on cooking materials that low-income families can afford or have in their households, and on nutrition education.

“They really loved the chicken enchiladas,” she says. ” They were like, is it Chinese food? I’m like, no! With the chemistry of the mixture, with the corn and the peas, they were like, ‘Ooh, we’re not trying that.’ But when they tried it … next time they said, ‘We want to cook chicken enchiladas.’

“We encourage our kids to take home the recipes. We’re in the process of seeing where this program can be implemented in other branches that serve low-income and at-risk families.”

The teens also formed a teen advisory board and raised money for new library equipment for their use.

“Right now, in Knoxville, we are going through a battle—a battle with violence, a battle with hopelessness—and we’re struggling over here,” says Cox. “Our library as a whole and our programming literally provides a safe haven for our teens.” Some parents drop off their kids for the entire time the library is open on summer days, she says. And the kids walk here, “to get off the streets and know that there are people who care about them.”

Knoxville is one of several communities that Kidsburgh is focusing on this year. Teaming with Allies for Children, the Sprout Fund and CMU’s kid-voices project Hear Me, with a grant from the Hillman Foundation, Kidsburgh is examining how neighborhood organizations work, in Millvale and elsewhere, and aiming to help them work together most effectively.

“The reason why we have strong programming,” says Cox, “is the support from the community and the willingness of our partners to collaborate with us.” A recent open-mic night drew an audience of 80 for 12 performers of poetry and music “dedicated to the positivity of the African-American culture,” she reports.

Yet it is sometimes hard for teens from other Hilltop neighborhoods to venture into Knoxville, Cox admits, “because of all the violence. Nine times out of ten they are afraid to cross barriers,” especially the older teens. “Right now there is a lot of tension, a lot of gun violence. I think it stops them from walking up …

“But I have seen a lot of new faces here,” she adds. “As a staff, inside of our specific branch, we work really hard together to make things possible. We cross barriers all the time,” bringing Knoxville programs to other Hilltop areas. “The important part is for our teens to see our faces and for our teens to know they are safe here.”

One of her favorite experiences has been the five-week summer Embracing Positive Parenthood program done in conjunction with Magee-Womens Hospital, State Farm Insurance and the Allegheny County Health Department’s Maternal and Child Services. This summer young men and women with children learned about stress management, budgeting, infant CPR and early literacy for babies.

“I think we all walked away with an understanding that no one is perfect, there’s always room for improvement, and we want to be the best parents we can be and give our children opportunities we did not have,” she says. “I honestly can’t wait to do it again.”

One of the most successful ways to draw teens into staying longer at the library has been, ironically, the program that lets them work off their late fees by volunteering at Cox’s side or doing book and music reviews for library patrons.

“We look at it in a positive way,” she says. “That program gives us a chance to draw people in. And they still come in to volunteer—they want to continue.”

Marty Levine

Marty Levine's journalism has appeared in Time, Salon.com and throughout Pennsylvania and has won awards from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, The Press...