The Power to Save Lives

By Alyse Horn

Helping adults who may feel lost

Founded in 2015, the South Hilltop Men’s Group began with the idea of providing opportunities and guidance to adolescents growing up in Hilltop neighborhoods without positive role models.

With more quality youth programming in the area, SHMG President Jmar Bey, who established the organization, said he is pivoting to help provide opportunities and purpose to disaffected young adults.

“At one point, I felt like someone has to do something and we are responsible for these kids,” Bey said. “Now I don’t feel that way as much because there are other folks out there doing it and they’re doing a good job.”

Over the last year, Bey has been working with a group of men rehabilitating houses that were donated to the organization, the first being the childhood home of former KDKA-TV Reporter Harold Hayes.

Bey said the home was finished in July 2016, and the second, 408 Rochelle St., will be completed by the end of this May. Five houses have been donated to SHMG and the organization is in the process of acquiring two more.

The decision for SHMG to shift from working with neighborhood youth on these projects to solely adults came about for a number of reasons, but mostly because Bey said he sees adults within his community who need jobs.

Recently, Bey teamed up with Anthony Stewart, president and environmental director of DECO Resources, to work on a project in Beltzhoover that correlates with SHMG “Lots of Pride” program that hires and trains adults to beautify and maintain vacant lots around the Hilltop.

The two also clinched the contract to haul PGH Mobile Toolbox, an initiative through GTECH and Neighborhood Allies that provides community organizations with the tools needed for gardening installations or maintenance.

“What we do is take [the Toolbox] out to various community groups that are looking to do some sort of workday and we direct them in the procedure of using those tools,” Stewart said. “We show them the best practices, safety, and then we can kind of help with the actual implementation of the plan to make sure everything is coordinated. Then GTECH helps with oversight.”

The Toolbox was first used on April 1 in Larimer by Ms. Betty Lane, who is on the community’s Green Team, for maintenance in the community garden. Talia Piazza, senior program manager for communications and marketing at Neighborhood Allies, said Lane has lived in Larimer for over 40 years and is a strong leader in the neighborhood, “and for her to be the first person to reserve the Toolbox was serendipitous.”

“When we were dreaming up the Toolbox, we knew this was the type of project we wanted to be able to activate, and not just cleaning up a lot but re-purposing it into something that will become a community asset,” Piazza said.

South Hilltop Men's Group
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Lydia Kramer, project coordinator at GTECH, said the Toolbox is a huge asset to communities holding large clean-up days because of its mobility. With everything from shovels, rakes, wheelbarrows, and weed whackers, Kramer said the toolbox could facilitate a cleanup involving around 50 people depending on the project.

Piazza said at the second clean up on April 8 in Lawrenceville; Stewart showed her and others how to collect soil samples. Bey said Stewart will be collecting samples from the communities who utilize the Toolbox to eventually create a map of where high concentrations of lead and other contaminants are located in the city.

[More on soil testing effort by DECO]

Stewart said after collecting the samples he “works with the Allegheny County Conservation District to actually screen for potential contaminates.”

“It’s in the lots. It’s in the playgrounds. You’d be shocked to know how much there is in these vacant lots,” Bey said.

Through the Adopt-A-Lot program run by the City, Bey has leased four lots on Beltzhoover Avenue that Stewart ran an initial investigation on.

Concerning the lead levels in soil of City owned lots; if there is over 1,000 parts per million it is deemed unusable. If it is over 400 parts per million, but below 1,000, then it can be used for above ground gardening. If the soil is less than 400 parts per million, then it can be used for gardening without raised beds.

Stewart said the four lots on Belthoover Avenue have between 400-1,000 parts per million with lead, “so what we wanted to do is try something a little bit different.”

There will be 24 different beds throughout the four lots that will contain “a different mix of soil amendments and a different mix of plants as well, so we will be able to have a clearly defined understanding of how the different mix of plants and soil amendments affect the level of lead in the soil,” Stewart said. “Then the goal is to use the most affordable and effective method and recreate that on an entire lot, and then use that method to bring down the soil lead level over three years.”

Photo: courtesy of DECO

On April 20, Bey and Stewart are attending a community forum in Beltzhoover on lead to explain their project involving the four lots and to gain community input. Stewart said they are also looking for neighborhood stewards of the land, who would be safely taught how to assess the soils and tend the lots.

Through the vacant lot clean-ups, stewardship’s, and the housing rehabilitation projects, Bey is creating more jobs in the neighborhood, which in return he hopes will raise the quality of life.

“A person who has a job, his outcomes are better in every aspect of his life,” Bey said.

The problem Bey faces is that he doesn’t have enough jobs for those in his community who want one.

Bey said during summer 2015 he was working on a project at Work Hard Pgh with SHMG Vice President Christian Nowlin, and the two would frequently do work on Friday and Saturday nights. For three weeks, Bey said he would see the same group of young men around the age of 19 hanging out across the street, and he “could tell that they were just way too bored.”

On one particular night, Bey said he and Nowlin crossed the street and started a conversation with the men. He asked what they were doing, where they were going, where they were coming from, which they responded with “nothing” and “nowhere.” Bey then asked how many had GED’s, and out of nine men only four raised their hands.

“Then I asked how many would work if I offered them jobs, and they all put their hands up,” Bey said.

This was around the time that Bey was securing funding for his workforce development programs. Some of the men gave Bey their numbers with the agreement that if Bey contacted one, the individual would let the others know about the job opportunity.

“You know what they say about idle hands,” Bey said.

[Below: 1:23 audio/video clip of Jmar]

In September 2015, Bey said the five men who did not raise their hands were involved in a shooting that killed 15-year-old Curtis Pounds from Mount Oliver.

“We don’t have enough jobs. Especially when you have young people coming to you for help and you know something is going to happen to that person… he’s gonna do what he’s got to do, and in most cases that’s how it starts. You could see it,” Bey said.

Before transferring his organizations focus to creating more opportunities for young adults and men in the Hilltop, Bey has one mission he would like accomplish to make a lasting impression on Pittsburgh youth.

Working with Voices Against Violence, Pittsburgh Public Schools, Pittsburgh Promise, Urban Innovation 21, Urban Kind Institute, and Neighborhood Learning Alliance, these organizations are in the beginning stages of securing funding and planning a trip to the beach for a group of Pittsburgh teenagers, most of whom, Bey said, have never left the city.

“How can they imagine, how can they be creative when all their life all they have known is depression and blight and fear and violence,” Bey said. “If that’s all they know, and that’s all they see, then they think that’s all there is.”

Bey doesn’t believe kids are born bad, but that it is “bad programming.” He said it becomes a cultural problem when adults begin planting negative seeds in children’s heads at a young age and embed their problems into the younger generation. The group of teens who will be taken to the beach will be some of “the roughest kids in the hardest situation,” Bey said, but they will be accompanied by some of the “best mentors around the city.”

Recalling the first time he saw the ocean, Bey said he experienced enlightenment and self-realization, and he is hoping the kids involved in the trip will feel the same way.

“We want to save and change lives,” Bey said. “We want to bring them back different.”

Story Credits

Writer: Alyse Horn
Visual & Media Producer: Will Halim

Disclaimer: the narrative expressed in the article is solely those of the author(s).
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