Pittsburgh's Small But Mighty Nonprofits

Small nonprofits are having a big influence on the greater Pittsburgh community they serve.

Cathy Lewis Long, executive director of The Sprout Fund, kids around with the goats that clear lots infested with knotweed thanks to support from the fund for  Allegheny Goatscape

Pittsburgh-area charitable organizations are proving when it comes to meeting the demands of the community, being small can’t stop them from making a big impact. 

“They’re often driven by passion,” says Cathy Lewis Long, executive director of The Sprout Fund, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting grassroots community projects in Pittsburgh. “Smaller organizations tend to be led by people who’ve committed their whole professional lives to the issues they’re working on. They see a challenge that needs to be addressed or an opportunity to make things better in the world, then take responsibility for leading that change themselves.” 

Smaller groups are also often closer to the action, Lewis Long says. 

“There is less distance between the organization and the work that’s happening on the ground,” she says. “It’s easier to see the impact of a donation when you give to a smaller organization.”

Across western Pennsylvania, these small but mighty groups are using all of their resources to reach the most people possible. For many, their services are vital. On a recent morning during breakfast service at Rainbow Kitchen Community Services’ dining room, every table was taken. 

Donna Little, executive director of Rainbow Kitchen

The Homestead-based organization, committed to improving quality of life for low-income families and individuals, serves a hot meal to anyone in need every weekday morning, an average of 80 people a day. In addition, the staff of seven uses a $400,000 annual budget to run a food pantry serving six communities, deliver food to close to 200 area seniors who can’t physically visit the pantry, serve dinner to area children year-round, offer case management services, distribute donated coats and other necessities, organize a holiday Adopt-a-Family program and more. 

LaShawnda Kelley, 25, of Homestead, says without the breakfast program, there are days she would go without a meal. 

“Coming here every day is a blessing,” says Kelley, a mother of two. “There are people who don’t have food in their refrigerators. There are people who are homeless. But it’s not just about food. You can be comfortable sitting here and eating. You can relax.”

​Haakeema Blanding, 23, of Homestead, also attends the breakfast program and is using Rainbow Kitchen support services to help secure housing. 

“The most important thing I get out of this is hope,” she says. 

In addition to securing funding for both program and operating costs, the biggest challenge is keeping up with demand, says executive director Donna Little. The staff relies heavily on the help of volunteers, many of whom also use the organization’s services. 

“There’s never a day where you can say, ‘OK, we’re all caught up. Everything’s done,’” Little says.

The upside to being small, Little says, is the intimacy it creates. 

“It’s personal,” she says. “We really get to know the people we’re serving, and they get to know us. In a much larger organization, someone who’s in my position might not have much of an opportunity to interact with the people they’re serving. Here, it doesn’t matter who you are or what your job is. You’re really getting the experience of providing services to people.”

Parker Werns, program coordinator of Proud Haven

Across town in Lawrenceville, another small but mighty organization called Proud Haven is making sure homeless LGBTQ+ youth have the shelter and support they need. 
According to the organization, 40 percent of the nation’s homeless youth identify as LGBTQ+. Proud Haven typically has 25 active clients; its annual budget is around $48,000.

“People don’t always know that something like this exists because there are not many organizations that deal specifically with homeless LGBTQ+ youth,” says Parker Werns, program coordinator and the group’s only paid staff person. “We’re one of the few. Our main goal right now is just making sure everyone knows our resources are available and that we want to help.”

Proud Haven is the primary referral source for the (only) three beds in the region dedicated to LGBTQ+ young adults. They also refer to different organizations across Pittsburgh and host their own programming for clients, everything from informational sessions on how to legally change your name if you’re a transgender person to employment discrimination and other topics. 

Proud Haven also offers regular drop-in hours at its Butler Street office for those seeking resources. The organization is hoping to expand its programming and open its own housing location by the end of this year. 

The future of the organization is exciting to Werns, who has often witnessed firsthand the impact Proud Haven can make. He recalls his first client, an 18-year-old from Alabama who came to Pittsburgh after a family crisis. He had little money and knew next to no one. Proud Haven helped him find a safe place to stay and enroll in a technical program. 

“We were able to take him from someone who was really not sure of what he was going to be doing in the next few days, let alone in the next month, to someone who has stable housing, is working through a technical program, and is going to be having a well-paying job whenever he graduates,” Werns says. “I hope we can help a thousand more people like that.”

When they are just starting out and pursuing nonprofit status, smaller charitable groups often can use all the help they can get. Millvale-based New Sun Rising is dedicated to providing training and resources for organizations aimed at economic and social development. Among its many offerings, it provides fiscal sponsorship for members including access to restricted funding, grants, tax-deductible donations and other project management benefits. 

Two newer groups benefitting from the program include Hello Neighbor and Prototype. 

Sloane Davidson is prepping for the second class of the pilot of Hello Neighbor, the mentoring program she founded earlier this year that matches refugees with local residents who help them learn to thrive in their new community. The program launched in January and has received a combined $130,000 in funding from the Heinz Endowments and USA for UNHCR (United Nations High Commission on Refugees).

Davidson, a Pittsburgh boomeranger with an extensive background in nonprofit work both domestic and international, launched the program after researching resources available for refugees and finding most funding support and intensive care management last only the first three months of resettlement. 

“If you think about the first three months in anything — a new job, a new relationship, a new apartment or house, a new city — it’s a whirlwind,” she says. “The concept that refugees pretty much have to be self-sufficient after 90 days really struck me.” 

The first class, which graduated in October, was made up of 25 matches, with refugees from seven different countries matched with families from 23 different Pittsburgh communities. Matches get together once per week, and what they do is largely up to them. One pair of moms started a tour of Pittsburgh fountains so their kids could splash and play together. Another mentee was interested in public transportation, so the mentor planned an entire day for them to take the T and ride the Incline. 

They’ve gone to the museums, studied for driving permits, helped kids enroll in new schools, read new leases for apartments and more. 

“When you can share time with somebody of another culture, you learn you’re really not so different after all,” says Davidson. “You are a mother, you’re a father, you’re trying to put food on the table for your kids, you’re trying to give them a better life than what you had. That’s universal.”

Davidson has brought on some paid interns to help out at times and is hoping to expand, but for the most part, Hello Neighbor is a one-woman operation. The hardest part of being small, she says, is making the best use of time. 

“Every day, I have to think, ‘Am I going to write a grant? Am I going to make an update to one of the pages on the website? Am I going to respond to all the emails in my inbox? Am I going to do a creative strategy session?’” she says. “The biggest challenge is there’s only so much time in the day.” 

Prototype co-founders Erin Gatz and Louise Larson saw a need affecting another specific part of the population: women in makerspaces, particularly those in low-income areas. As part of Sprout Foundation’s 100 Days of US program, aimed at finding solution-oriented responses to issues of national importance during the first 100 days of the new presidential administration, they set out with a goal of reaching 100 women in a series of hands-on STEM workshops. More than 500 people participated. 

“These are the segments of the population that often don’t engage in makerspace culture because it can be cost-prohibitive and it can feel like an intimidating culture that is not particularly welcoming,” says Gatz. “We’re not going to talk down to you or think less of you because you don’t know how to use a power drill. Maybe you’re really good at computer-aided modeling, but you’re not taken seriously when you talk about your knowledge of CAM because you’re a woman. We wanted to create a supportive space for women to come and learn new hands-on skills.”

For a low monthly fee, Prototype members can use their space in North Oakland, equipped with a range of tools and technology, and create whatever they wish at their own pace. 

Gatz and Larson have done all of this with just $7,000 in funding between grants and membership fees and a dedicated network of volunteers. 

“One of the main goals is to help continue building the maker network in Pittsburgh and beyond,” says Larson. “We see a lot of people who are interested in using tools or equipment or taking classes but don’t necessarily have an on-ramp to be able to do that. We can be that bridge between someone and their interests by helping introduce them to different spaces or introductory foundational topics that then allow them to be better suited to take a higher-level class somewhere else.”

Steven and Adriana D’Achille of the Alexis Joy D’Achille Center

Sometimes, just one family’s experience can shed new light on an issue affecting many. The Alexis Joy D’Achille Foundation, which Steven D’Achille created four years ago in honor of his late wife, has partnered with Allegheny Health Network to open a state-of-the-art facility at West Penn Hospital for women suffering from pregnancy-related depression; the program is designed as a safe place for women to get treatment with their child. The Alexis Joy D’Achille Center for Women’s Behavioral Health is expected to open in early 2018.

Alexis, a woman known for her outgoing personality and great sense of humor, was suffering from postpartum depression when she took her own life on Oct. 10, 2013, just six weeks after the birth of her daughter, Adriana. Steven D’Achille started the foundation shortly thereafter, and began raising funds through two annual events, a black tie gala and a 5K run. In 2015, the foundation awarded its first grant to AHN for $100,000 to create new models of care for postpartum depression.

That program is now expanding with the creation of the Alexis Joy D’Achille Center for Women’s Behavioral Health, which will house in one setting an array of services currently offered to women at West Penn who are in need of treatment for perinatal depression, encompassing postpartum depression and depression during pregnancy.

The West Penn Hospital Foundation also provided financial support toward the creation of the center.

D’Achille of Gibsonia says the creation of the center is like a “dream come true.” He says money raised by the foundation has gone up every year as more people learn of its mission, and his foundation has been able to pledge more to AHN because of it.

“Most of it has been word-of-mouth,” he says. “Pittsburgh is big enough to matter but small enough to care.”

With the city’s support of such organizations, there is no limit to the reach of Pittsburgh’s charitable community.

“Great things start small,” says Lewis Long. “By supporting a small but mighty group, you can help grow that big idea to perhaps be the next pillar of the community.”  

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