Age-Friendly Greater Pittsburgh has had a mission in Western Pennsylvania since its inception — bring change in communities by connecting all generations with projects that neighborhoods have interest in and need.
It planted the seeds — literally, in one project — with its first group of Age-Friendly Neighborhoods: the Hill District, Clairton and Coraopolis. Last year these three communities received $10,000 in funding and were promised support over two years to create intergenerational projects and events.
It’s worked so well that Saturday, in a celebration of the first year of the project at Frick Park, those efforts will receive double the funding to $20,000 as they continue, Age-Friendly Assistant Director Cassandra Masters said.
Age-Friendly Greater Pittsburgh is part of the World Health Organization Global Network for Age-Friendly Cities and Communities. Allegheny County and the city of Pittsburgh joined the network in 2015, and the organization competed its first action plan in 2020 after a period of planning, implementation and evaluation, according to its website. The neighborhoods effort is part of its second five-year cycle, with a network of more than 160 community partners, working both in and outside of aging.
The neighborhood projects drew 29 applications that the agency winnowed down to three last April. “We wanted to do this in a meaningful way,” Masters said, “find neighborhoods that were under-resourced and overburdened.
“Our work is about bringing generations together to create intergenerational solidarity, solve challenges the community faces. Older citizens usually are set aside. Our work is really about bringing people together to make change in our communities. This effort is a way to get all of its efforts together.”
Age-Friendly obtained funding for the neighborhood project from the Henry L. Hillman Foundation, Jefferson Regional Foundation, The Pittsburgh Foundation and the Heinz Family Foundation.
In the first year, the projects began in each community:
- In Clairton, with partners in the school district, Clairton Family Center and Produce Marketplace along with assistance from the city, students and adults created 26 planters in a beautification project. The adults involved just placed those throughout the city this past week. Attendance at a fall event — a Halloween party, karaoke and bingo party — surpassed organizers’ hopes and connected generations.
- In Coraopolis, mobility options and street safety became the focus. Partners include the Coraopolis Towers apartment complex, ACCESS and the Coraopolis Community Development Corp. Seniors learned how to use ACCESS better, and the group has organized Walmart Wednesdays to help the seniors do their shopping, and Towers and non-Towers residents of all ages toured Phipps Conservatory, followed by a lunch together.
- In the Hill District, the focus is on storytelling, ensuring younger residents know the rich history of the neighborhood. The main partner is Macedonia Family and Community Enrichment Center or FACE. At the end of June, the group is planning an intergenerational feast on June 28 from 5 to 8 p.m. at the University of Pittsburgh Community Engagement Center in the Hill District with that storytelling piece.
The projects began with workshops last summer, conducted by Lively Pittsburgh, a small group that has become the boots-on-the-ground staff for Age-Friendly, Masters said. They became the point persons for the project, in addition to ambassadors in each chosen community. Lively Pittsburgh led Age-Friendly’s work in 2015, starting with Aging Your Way Workshops.
Masters said a major takeaway from all the Age-Friendly initiatives, including the work with the neighborhoods, is that what seniors need, everyone needs. It can be as basic as safe sidewalks and curb cuts for mobility needs to beautification projects or employment opportunities and digital literacy.
“Our population is getting older. That is an opportunity, not a threat,” she said, adding that Age-Friendly combats agism as well as solving issues. We want them to maintain engagement in their communities.
“We want to ensure they remain active residents of their community their entire life. Life doesn’t stop with retirement.”
The other issue is age silos, Masters said. Seniors only see people in their own age group, living in high-rises and going to senior citizens centers. Young people may only truly know their grandparents. With projects like this, “We see intergenerational opportunities to move outside your age silos,” she said.
Ted Cmarada, the community engagement director for Lively Pittsburgh, couldn’t agree more. He and his wife, Susan, and Jason Jablon worked with the three neighborhoods. He said their group’s mission of activism and getting more seniors involved, including in outdoor activities, just meshed very well.
The group led the initial neighborhood workshops that planned all the activity and connected interested residents, and each person used his or her skills to get the engagement going and activities started. In the process, they built needed relationships, a process that will continue. The group had conducted similar workshops for Age-Friendly as its work got underway.
Cmarada grew up in Clairton, where his family owned a clothing store when the town thrived and many — if not most — residents worked for U.S. Steel. He left for college and graduate school, became a psychotherapist and eventually opened a holistic health clinic in Maryland. He returned to the Pittsburgh area part time to work on Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008, along the way discovering East End neighborhoods. He and his wife now live in Friendship, and he continues his clinical work online.
“Getting to know these neighborhoods again, it was very moving for me,” he said. The Cmaradas connected with social justice and community projects, met Scott Wolovich, who leads New Sun Rising, a partner fiscal sponsor for nonprofits, based in Millvale, that established the Vibrant Communities Framework. Lively Pittsburgh, a group dedicated to community involvement, was born. One of its first community projects — a flash mob performance in 2016 called Crossings East Liberty — took place to illustrate the hazards of urban street crossing, involving people of all ages and abilities.
The three initial Age-Friendly neighborhoods are very different by their location, urban and suburban, and Cmarada said the projects drew from their nature and the partner organizations.
In Clairton, about 20 middle school students belonging to the National Junior Honor Society worked with residents to first paint the 26 metal large garbage cans a bright base color, with some additional help from Tachoir Auto Body, then decide upon artwork for each one. The effort involved getting business and community organizations to sponsor them, pledging to water them and keep them thriving through the summer.
The students and residents got together one final time last week to finish off the planters, placing a cement block at the bottom, a layer of recyclable plastic bottles next, then the dirt and flowers. Watersheds of South Pittsburgh provided the soil and all the flowers, according to Felix Fusco, manager of the Produce Marketplace, a small grocery store launched by the Mon Valley Initiative. Clairton’s public works employees with their trucks helped move the planters around town, and Nick Nickolich, who owns a towing business in the city, helped with a watering and a transport truck, too.
Fusco, who helped write the Clairton application, shares the project’s ambassador duties with Victoria Lewis and Jawanna McDougald Warren. He said the amount of engagement between the student scholars and the adults who volunteered was gratifying. “It was just a good dialogue and a good engagement between the adults and the students,” he said. “One thing I heard from the adults was that the students really exceeded their expectations.
“We as adults come in with preconceived options about young people. The feedback I got was the students were very open and willing to take advice. They were willing to trust them [the adults]. We’ve planted the seeds. We will continue to do this and sustain this process.”
Cmarada said the reaction to the planters as the group placed them around town was immediate. They saw a young man touching the flowers, saying this is so beautiful, so nice. “He was taking it in with such thoughtfulness and delight,” he said. Another woman, who had returned home to the area after living in Atlanta, stopped to talk as she drove through town. “She told us, ‘I said to myself, there’s life, there’s life.’ She just had a look of absolute delight on her face.”
What’s next for Clairton in the second year, as well as the two other communities? Masters said she anticipates more beautification and more intergenerational projects at planning sessions this summer.
Fusco wants the students more involved in the activities and events. “I want them to think of projects they think will work and they are tied to. We can’t do everything, but we can prioritize and see what we can do,” he said. “I told them whatever your dream is for this community, we’re going to try to do that.”