Wynona Harper loves her Penn Hills community, and she has worked tirelessly to help her neighbors through the organization she created in memory of her son, Jamar’s Place of Peace.

This past Saturday she celebrated the grand opening of a home for her nonprofit at St. James Episcopal Church on Frankstown Road with her many friends and partners. It included a free spaghetti dinner — she and her friends prepared it themselves — and started the distribution of free food and new clothing that will continue two days a week there, starting this Tuesday.

Harper had anticipated 200 people coming to the event, which recognized her organization’s partnership with the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank and the public officials and leaders who have helped her and supported her mission of community love. People of all ages packed into the church, enjoying the meal and each other’s company. The food bank offered free produce to them, interested attendees could pick out a new outfit, Be Smart Pittsburgh offered free gun locks, and Harper had 50 new pillows to give to whomever needed them. 

Her son was killed in 2013 in an act of gun violence following a disagreement in the Penn Hills Giant Eagle on Rodi Road. No one has been charged in his death. A year before she had also lost a nephew. Her best friend, Mary Strader of Penn Hills, also lost her son, Shayne. He was shot and killed in May 2022 near the National Aviary on the North Side. Harper made the decision to channel her grief into helping others, and the continuing gun violence in Penn Hills and the Pittsburgh area has strengthened her resolve to do more.

“I will not let this world condition my heart and soul,” she said the day before the grand opening. “We all need to take accountability and do something different to help each other.”

Harper said she has become an interrupter in Penn Hills and Allegheny County to fight back and bring to light the growing number of unsolved minority homicides. “I am collaborating with all types of groups here. Gun violence is horrendous,” she said.

Wynona Harper welcomes attendees at the Jamar’s Place of Peace grand opening at St. James Episcopal Church in Penn Hills Saturday, March 2, 2024. (Helen Fallon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

As she pursued this cause — with partners such as Moms Demand Action, who helped serve Saturday’s dinner, as well as churches, charitable organizations, and state and local governing bodies — Harper started working on providing Penn Hills residents with food, clothing and assistance with basic needs like shelter and utility costs. She started with a number of pop-ups and other events in Penn Hills, working with the Penn Hills Library and local businesses that would let her distribute turkeys, book bags, socks and other needs outside their doors.

Harper recalled some of those — two Thanksgiving dinners, a holiday gift shop for children to buy presents for their parents, a taco bar and a Nigerian food event at Penn Hills Library — as she worked to set up at the church for Saturday’s event.  “We are all struggling,” she said.  “The price of food is ridiculous. … I’ve been doing this for 10 years.”

She said that about four years ago she started giving out food from her car, collecting donations and working with Light of Life Rescue Mission and 412 Food Rescue to do so. She made up food boxes, then found people in need through posts on her organization’s Facebook page and just asking around.

“It was so much fun,” she recalled. “They would say, is this lady crazy? I have been so grateful. That’s how I started in honor of my son. This is how I channel my pain.”

She is an industrial cleaning subcontractor and funded much of this herself. The pandemic hurt her business and slowed down some of her progress, but Harper, who has two daughters and seven grandchildren, persevered.

She said she learned from others how to create her 501(c)(3) nonprofit and how to counsel people who need help with drug and alcohol addiction, utility bill assistance, shelter and more. Those needs do not seem to go away, and she said the people worrying over them can’t find stability without until they get help.

So she worked at it. Hard. In 2022 She said she touched 3,000 people’s lives. She learned from the library pop-up events, and she pointed out the library’s Community Fridge program it offers on Wednesdays and Fridays.

She also stressed the help she has received from local, state and federal elected officials, including Penn Hills Mayor Pauline Calabrese; state Sen. Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills; state Rep. Joe McAndrew, D-Penn Hills; and U.S. Rep. Chris Deluzio, D-Aspinwall. They or a staff aide stopped by Saturday at the grand opening.

Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank food access innovation coordinator Evie Furrick, volunteer Gordon Fullard and Penn Hills Democratic Committee events chairman Dave Stokes help with the produce distribution on Saturday. (Helen Fallon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

After several years of helping others, she worked up to applying to become a Greater Pittsburgh Food Bank community partner, and Abby Eagan, food access innovations manager, said her application was approved at the beginning of the year. Food bank staff helped her get organized with all the details involved in operating a food pantry, and it provided a freezer for her to use, too.

“Some of the biggest things that go into being a food pantry she had when she applied,” Eagan said. “She had a fantastic team of volunteers in place. The people who are part of Jamar’s Place of Peace are so passionate and skilled. 

“She came with a vision of all the services she wanted to offer with this pantry.  … The connection with the community is the most important thing she has. We don’t have that as a regional food bank. We are providing her with the goods for doing the work in the community.”

The food bank has other partners in Penn Hills, and it also operates a senior food box program there for those 60 and older. That gives participants a 20-pound box of shelf staples and a 2-pound box of cheese. Eagan said Harper is looking to implement that in the coming months and add that to her efforts.

Eagan has been impressed with Harper and her work and service ethic. “She just brightens the room,” she said. “I didn’t know about her before she reached out. When I first connected with her, I had gone to look up the location and found stories about the work she had done in the past. I was blown away by how long and hard she has been working for the community.”

Jamar’s Place of Peace will be open for food and clothing distribution on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 5:30-7:30 p.m. No one needs to register; Harper said she will need to have residents complete a form for her food bank reports. The new clothing will be limited right now to one time a month and one outfit. 

Harper stressed that the clothes are new, and she has $35,000 worth to start that she has obtained from partners she declined to name. These partners collect clothing from TJ Maxx, Burlington, Macy’s, Amazon and other retailers. She applied to the program and was one of 40 selected.

Her other plans include raising money for a new refrigerator and a Penn Hills community kitchen. Harper plans to call it the Peanut Butter Jelly and Jam Kitchen. Her son loved those sandwiches as a young boy.

Residents line up at the Jamar’s Place of Peace opening Saturday. The racks of new clothing to pick from are behind the welcome table. (Helen Fallon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

The 59-year-old grew up in East Liberty and has lived in Penn Hills since 1990. Harper serves as vice chair of the Penn Hills Democratic Committee. Her fellow committee members worked all week to help her get set up for Saturday’s event, volunteered for it to help the food bank’s produce distribution and had a table of information for attendees.   

Harper has been working with St. James Episcopal Church for five to six years, she said, and she calls the priest in charge since 2013, the Rev. Canon Eric McIntosh, “a total, total blessing.” In past years she’s used church space to hand out free furniture from American Freight that she had in a storage area, noting that she has already given out $162,000 worth of it.

Rev. McIntosh said Harper’s vision and mission aligns with his church. “We are in partnership is how I look at it,” he said. “It’s a collaborative to meet the needs of the community.”

Harper is not a member of his church, but when she came to him looking for a home for Jamar’s Place of Peace, “I said absolutely. This church is the place to do it. “

As he looked over the crowd on Saturday and all that was available, including “a just stunning” collection of new clothes, Rev. McIntosh stressed the importance of Harper’s efforts for her community in a specific way.

“Being able to give new clothes to folks is so important,” he said. “Everyone wants new clothes. [By doing this] we share in the dignity of all humanity.  It’s the most helpful way to do it.”

Jamar’s Place of Peace will be open on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 5:30-7:30 p.m. It is accepting donations by check to defray its costs right now. Those can be mailed care of St. James Episcopal Church, 11524 Frankstown Road, Penn Hills, PA 15235. Volunteers are also needed for the distributions. 

Mayor Pauline Calabrese and Rep. Chris Deluzio visited the grand opening of Jamar’s Place of Peace in Penn Hills. (Helen Fallon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Helen is a copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike. Contact her at hfallon@unionprogress.com.

Helen Fallon

Helen is a copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike. Contact her at hfallon@unionprogress.com.