Urban Plunge: Experiencing Poverty in Pittsburgh
The best view of Pittsburgh can easily be seen from Mt. Washington. Standing on the viewing platform, staring at the rising skyscrapers, multiple bridges and flowing rivers, it is easy to be overcome by the beauty that is the city of Pittsburgh.
Hidden within this view, however, is a world of individuals who are — with the help of tireless non-profits and organizations — fighting very hard to make ends meet and survive.
From Monday, January 8, through Wednesday, January 10, I had the opportunity to participate in Urban Plunge, an experiential-learning course sponsored by the Notre Dame Club of Pittsburgh that is designed to give students an opportunity to spend time with people who face the challenges of poverty and the organizations and those who work to support them.
Eleven other Notre Dame students and I spent three days traveling around the city visiting and volunteering at various non-profits that work every day to fight urban poverty. At night, we volunteered and slept in the Pleasant Valley Men’s Shelter.
Although we learned about many amazing non-profits, there were a few I found especially interesting and inspiring. The Crossroads Foundation takes on about 35 at-risk eighth-graders each year and pays for them to go to a private Catholic high school. The end goal is graduation and then college. The Catholic Charities Free Health Care Center provides free health care to individuals who are uninsured and don’t qualify for insurance. Light of Life Rescue Mission provides beds and housing for the homeless and programs to help them get back on their feet. Gwen’s Girls offers after-school programs and temporary housing for at-risk girls ages 8-18. These programs help them develop a successful plan for the future. The Jubilee Soup Kitchen serves one hot meal a day to anyone who comes in, no questions asked.
In addition to learning about these organizations and others, I was also moved by the conversations we had with individuals who came into the soup kitchen and lived in the Pleasant Valley Men’s shelter. In the soup kitchen, we met a school bus driver who stopped to have lunch in between routes. Another man had always wanted to go to college, but said his mother wouldn’t let him.
One recognized the name of my high school and we talked about winning the state championship football game this past December. This continued at the homeless shelter as well. The first night we all watched the college football championship game. (I don’t think anyone was rooting for Alabama, and a few also made fun of Notre Dame.)
Between the two evenings, we learned some of their history. Many were college educated, but difficult circumstances had forced them into where they are today. One man had been very successful but ended up homeless due to his alcohol addiction.
Another, Irvin, had an incredibly difficult life. He lost his wife and twins in a fire, was in a coma for days after being hit with a brick, overcame drug addiction, and nearly lost his life again when a suicidal neighbor tried to burn down his apartment building. Temporarily homeless, he was staying at the shelter until he could get back on his feet again.
In spite of all of this hardship and loss, he had a positive outlook on life, was involved in his church, and still had faith in God. Irvin challenged our views on race and faith, and told us that we can find and create good inside ourselves.
Overall, this experience changed my view of Pittsburgh and poverty. There are people with unique stories, trying to overcome difficult circumstances, and alongside them are tireless workers and volunteers in non-profits working to help them succeed. The end result isn’t always ideal, but that doesn’t mean they give up hope or stop trying.
I am extremely grateful to have had this opportunity to see another side of Pittsburgh with my classmates. It has inspired me to apply for a service learning program with one of these organizations over this upcoming summer.
Ally Staresinic is a freshman at the University of Notre Dame University where she is studying Arts and Letters Pre-Health. A graduate of Pine-Richland High School, Ally has been involved with St. Richard’s youth group, Appalachia mission trips, and the Edge program. She is very passionate about the Center for Social Concerns at Notre Dame.
Ally is the daughter of Greg and Barb Staresinic. Greg is our head usher for the 7:30 a.m. Sunday Mass.