Mary Phan-Gruber, left, the first CEO of the Jefferson Regional Foundation, and current CEO, Trisha Gadson, prepare to embrace at a celebration marking the foundation's 10-year anniversary at AHN Jefferson Hospital on April 12, 2023. Photo by John Beale.

To Lt. Gov. Austin Davis, Trisha Gadson will always be “Miss Trish.”

That’s how he addressed the CEO of the Jefferson Regional Foundation on April 12 when he spoke at the philanthropy’s 10th-anniversary celebration. 

And it’s what he called her when he was growing up in McKeesport, a former steeltown in the Mon Valley. 

Davis was several years older than Gadson’s daughter when Gadson was volunteering in the community and serving on its school board.

When she started in the top job at the foundation last September, Davis “thought Dr. Gadson was too formal a title … and we laugh about it,” says Gadson, who holds a doctorate in community engagement from Point Park University as well as degrees from Carlow and Syracuse universities. 

Since its creation, the foundation has made grants totaling nearly $20 million in health, economic development and other programs that aim to benefit residents of South Hills suburbs and much of the Mon Valley. 

“As someone who grew up in McKeesport, I know you all give those communities a strong voice … to improve lives,” Davis told foundation officials and guests who gathered on the Jefferson Hospital campus for the anniversary event. 

Pennsylvania Lt. Governor Austin Davis speaks at a celebration marking the 10-year anniversary of the Jefferson Regional Foundation. Photo by John Beale

Before being elected as lieutenant governor in 2022, Davis served as state representative for  McKeesport and surrounding Mon Valley communities from 2018 until 2022.

Although Gadson now resides in Forest Hills, she believes the foundation board still considers her to be “one of their community members” because of her years living in and giving back to McKeesport.  

She’s a native of the Washington, D.C., area and her husband grew up in Clairton where her 93-year-old father-in-law still resides. 

In her current job, Gadson succeeded Mary Phan-Gruber, who led the foundation from its creation until she retired last year. 

The foundation launched in 2013 after Jefferson Hospital became an affiliate of Allegheny Health Network.

Terms of the deal stipulated that AHN sets aside $75 million for a new charitable foundation to award grants focused on the health and well-being of residents in the 25-plus communities included within the hospital’s service footprint. 

“As AHN invested inside the four walls of the hospital, the foundation was looking to invest outside the four walls,” Richard Talarico, chair of the foundation’s board of trustees, said via a video presentation during the anniversary event.

The foundation’s assets now total $110 million and the broad region in which it invests stretches from Baldwin, Brentwood, Whitehall and Bethel Park south to Elizabeth and Forward, and east to the riverfront towns of Homestead, Duquesne, McKeesport and South Versailles.

Trisha Gadson, CEO of the Jefferson Regional Foundation, left, talks with Susan Barrett, administrative manager senior at Jefferson Hospital, during a celebration marking the foundation’s 10-year anniversary at the hospital on April 12, 2023. Photo by John Beale.

Among the largest grants it made in the current fiscal year is $150,000 to the Black Women’s Policy Center for coaching, training and education programs for Black women in McKeesport, Clairton, Duquesne, West Mifflin and Homestead. A $175,000 grant went to the Mon Valley Initiative to support a workforce development program for local residents.

Smaller grants included $42,000 to Young People in Recovery, a nonprofit that offers meetings, assistance and social activities for people recovering from substance abuse; and $30,000 to the Anna Middleton Waite Adult Learning Center in McKeesport, for digital learning support and training for older adults. 

Prior to her job at the foundation, Gadson was CEO of the social services agency Macedonia Family and Community Enrichment Center for more than a decade.

That faith-based nonprofit, which has offices in East Liberty and offers programs in the Hill District and throughout Allegheny County, provides help for families facing food insecurity, runs youth workshops and a Meals on Wheels program, and operates a senior center.

The shift from an urban-based nonprofit to a foundation focused on 26 diverse suburbs and small towns forced Gadson “to realize each community has its own culture and leaders and it’s important to understand, connect and be respectful of the culture.”

Issues people face in say, Bethel Park and Whitehall, largely middle-class communities closer to Pittsburgh, “are not the same as issues for people in Glassport, Clairton or Port Vue,” formerly manufacturing-based communities hit hard by the collapse of the steel industry, she notes. 

Gadson identifies herself as “a community engagement practitioner” and among her goals for the foundation is to “make sure our grantmaking is informed by the people that actually live here.”

To that end, the foundation recently launched its Community Voice Fund, which encourages individuals and small nonprofits to identify challenges in their communities and propose solutions. 

Grants of up to $35,000 will be awarded. The deadline to apply is April 28 and details are available here.

The fund sprang from a survey of nonprofits that serve the foundation’s communities. Only 39% of respondents live in the service area, Gadson says.

“It showed us that the people doing really good work and thinking about how to deliver services here don’t live here,” she says. “We want to identify a process where we hear from the people who live here.”

At the foundation’s 10th anniversary celebration, violinist Irene Chang and cellist Michael DeBruyn from the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra performed. 

That was Gadson’s idea.

“I’m a big fan of live music,” she says, noting that a jazz band played at the foundation’s holiday party. 

She’s also a published novelist. Her book, “The Battle is Not Yours,” published in 2001, was inspired by Gadson’s relationship with her mother who died due to complications from HIV.

Though she’s completed another manuscript, it likely won’t be published until she retires, Gadson says. 

“I plan to go to a sleepy college town, drink wine on the porch, teach one class per semester and write novels.”

Joyce Gannon is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer.