'Ambassadors' reclaiming vacant property in the Hilltop
GTECH program teaches green space development
Transforming residents into leaders and vacant lots into green space is the focal point of a local nonprofit that is looking to "reclaim" vacant property through the renewal of a successful community development program in South Pittsburgh neighborhoods.
This year, Growth Through Energy and Community Health (GTECH) Strategies has launched ReClaim South: Sustaining Momentum, a continuation of its 2014 program aimed at giving South Pittsburgh residents, also known as neighborhood ambassadors, the ability and support to lead individual green space development projects.
GTECH's ambassador-driven development model has led to more than 80 volunteers and 328 hours of community service invested in South Pittsburgh neighborhoods including Beltzhoover, Allentown, Mount Oliver, Knoxville, and St. Clair.
Part of GTECH's process is to recruit community ambassadors that are passionate about a project. Then, GTECH provides 30 hours of education and instruction. Once projects begin, ambassadors are given ongoing microfunding guidance and technical assistance.
Improving the 65-acre South Side Park is a project that is new to this year's program. Project ambassador Jamie Balser said his goal is to raise awareness for the park and increase usage.
"We're hoping to engage and show the importance of an underutilized community resource," Mr. Balser said.
The project started with the idea to improve South Side Park's Mission Street hiking trail entrance on the site of the former Bandi Schaum baseball field. Mr. Balser developed a concept for trail entrance improvement and was able to secure a grant from FedEx for $4,200 as well as 50 FedEx employee volunteers.
The volunteers worked to pull invasive plants, plant native plants, mulch the trail entrance, and have children contribute by painting birdhouses for the park's entrance. They are also working to pilot the city's first signage standardization program.
"It would have been impossible to do without GTECH's assistance," Mr. Balser said. "They facilitated the grant. They did all the running interference with the city bureaucracy. They came out and helped supervise the volunteers."
In addition to Mr. Balser's project, Suzanne Photos and John Neiderberger are continuing to improve a parklet they created in a formerly vacant Mount Oliver lot on the corner of Mountain Avenue and Fisher Street. The new green space now includes a chess table, cornhole boards, and miniature free library.
This year, Ms. Photos is working to add more trees and a park bench as well as host a community gaming event.
In Knoxville, ambassadors Cheryl Ruffin, Heather Messiah, and Robin DeVaughn are working to create a garden in the vacant lot adjacent to Saint Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, while Linda Piso is developing youth-oriented programming, with a focus on gardening, at the newly remodeled Knoxville library.
According to GTECH project manager James Snow, each project lasts between 12 and 14 months. During this time, GTECH meets with each ambassador every three weeks, provides project implementation assistance, and organizes a volunteer day. However, the ambassador is ultimately responsible for the outcome of the project.
"It's a balancing act between us and the ambassador," Mr. Snow said. "But we really put the ambassador on a pedestal, because they're responsible for the long term maintenance of their project."
Since a majority of the projects are continuations from the past program, most ambassadors have received three years of assistance from GTECH and a connection to an organization such as a church or community group that helps to push the ambassador towards project completion. They are also provided with a $500 stipend from GTECH.
"They've put in a lot of time and effort and we tap into that initial drive they put in to begin with," Mr. Snow said. "We do ensure every ambassador is connected with a community anchor in their neighborhood."
Mr. Snow said to become an ambassador, you must be at least 18 years old, live in the community in which you'd like to work, and have a desire to make a difference.
"We're looking for people who have the spirit and desire to make a difference in your community," Mr. Snow said. "You don't have to be a green guru, you just have to be committed to making a difference."
Mr. Snow also said developing leaders within the community to take on these projects is a critical part of community development.
"Community development doesn't sleep," Mr. Snow said. "With so much influx and new things happening across the city, it's important that people who have been here and have a stake in their community are heard and make a difference."
For more information on how to volunteer or contribute to a project, visit https://gtechstrategies.org/our-projects/.