Greg Koehn had never set foot inside the Millvale Community Library, although he owns the Nova Café right across the street. Yet there he was on April 26th, with his niece Rachel Blaszkiewicz, who sported a paw-print face painting and was thrilled to have her picture taken with a Star Wars character. They’d come for the Millvale Community Celebration, which drew a crowd of kids and families as well as local and citywide groups that serve children.
“It’s getting there,” Koehn said about his community. Rachel already comes to the library regularly – ever since it opened last year. But Millvale still needed some basics to improve it for local families, he said, including “more people who want to be involved.”
As it turns out, more people are getting involved in Millvale’s future: The Celebration day was the culmination of several months of community conversation begun by Allies for Children, which included representatives of the Shaler Area School District, library director Brian Wolovich, the sisters of the local Mt. Alvernia order and others with important stakes in the community. Organized by Kidsburgh and The Sprout Fund, the group created a community pledge to make sure that:
• kids are ready to enroll in kindergarten
• local groups are sharing news
• kids are safe in Millvale
• the resources of Mt. Alvernia are part of the community mix.
“I doing science!”
The day showed clearly how local groups can help kids have fun in a safe space while learning at the same time.
On a simple wooden table in the middle of the library, Kevin Goodwin of the Mobile MakeShop, from the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, set out circuit blocks that run lights and motors, which Millvale kids can make here every Thursday.
He showed one pre-school boy how to connect wires to nails on either side of a red light and then a yellow one, which made them light up.
“Can you get the green one to light up?” Goodwin said. Now the boy knew exactly what to do.
“This is the coolest thing ever! The kids built them?” said Lauren Gross, a Shaler high-school student whose group, the Youth Advocacy League, was there to talk about their work promoting safe schools, diversity and volunteering in the community.
“The kids are building an exhibit piece for the library,” Goodwin said. “They seem to enjoy that more than building something to take home.” A steady group of kids comes every week, he reported. “We do a lot of sewing. The kids have gotten into soldering lately. We also built a big puppet theater.
An even younger girl connected a circuit and held it up. “I doing science!” she said. “Can I make one of these?”
Across the room, kids were responding to questions on white boards and listening to interviews with Millvale youth on playback devices inside cans on strings – part of Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab project, Hear Me. Jessica Kaminsky, who was running the table, heads Hear Me, which is dedicated to getting youth voices heard in Pittsburgh-area communities.
“What do you want adults to care about in Millvale?” was the question on one white board.
“Kids,” Kaylin Moss of Millvale wrote in response. “Cus they play with us.”
“I wish adults wouldn’t let their kids just leave and take more care of their kids,” an older child wrote on another board.
Besides the “canned” interviews, a slew of other Millvale kids over the last two years have contributed audio and video interviews – choosing their topics and learning to film and edit the finished products, which are available here.
Sylvan Hemingway, one of the digital literacy instructors with Sprout’s Remake Learning Digital Corps, manned the robotics table. There, kids used “Hummingbird” kits, also developed by CREATE Lab. Their simple plug-and-play components (motors and sensors that detect light, sound, temperature, distance and more) help kids quickly grasp how robotics works.
“You can have the [robot] interact with the world, making decisions based on what it is sensing,” Hemingway said. Or you can create a hinged dinosaur jaw, as Hemingway did out of cardboard, and have the motor open and close it on command. “It’s empowering them to show them how easy it is,” he said.
A role for everyone
Patrick Dowd, head of Allies for Children, presented the goals that afternoon. “These are big ideas but they’re not beyond the possible of what can be achieved in Millvale,” he told the crowd. “The passion that everybody has to improve the quality of life here” was certainly evident, he added. “Everybody can participate. Everybody can have a role. That’s the spirit we found here in Millvale.”
Library Director Brian Wolovich asked that more local groups connect with the library to create specific ways to fulfill the goals. “Please get in touch with us so we can come up with ways to make these happen. These are not just things on paper,” he said.
Gathered in another corner of the event, three representatives from Mt. Alvernia’s Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities were also determined not to leave the goals on paper.
“We’ve been wanting to be involved since the opening of the library,” said Sister Pat O’Donnell. Kids in Millvale “need a place for them to play. They need safety and transportation. They need to be prepared to go to kindergarten.”
“How can we utilize our campus?” said Sister Lorraine Wesolowski, pointing out that its 18 acres are somewhat inaccessible on a hill, and have tennis and basketball courts that are in need of repair. “When I look at those commitments: What is it that we can really provide? What can be real – and what will work?”
Sister Donna Zwigart said she hoped to develop a program for kids to enjoy the natural setting of their woods and learn to identify the plants and trees.
“There definitely has to be … a greater outreach to the adult community to get that support,” said O’Donnell.
“I think that they have the capacity to put those goals in action,” Dowd said later about the groups he had met in Millvale. “They can go to their [borough] council and say, ‘Our request to you today is part of our set of goals we’ve been working on …,’” noting that Shaler, Mt. Alvernia and the other local groups have developed their own, more specific agendas from these meetings.
“Our job was to facilitate the conversation,” he concluded, “but we’ve developed some great relationships and we’re going to help any way that we can.”
Over by the library’s computers, Gina Vogel, her two small kids and their friend thought the day was “amazing,” Vogel said.
One of her kids was still talking about the dinosaur robot: “If we had a piece of popcorn it would open its mouth and eat it,” she said.
Added her friend: “It could do anything!”
Photographs by Ben Filio, courtesy The Sprout Fund.