By DONOVAN HARRELL
One of the first things that will catch the eyes of visitors at Pitt’s Homewood Community Engagement Center is a massive black and white photo, behind a transparent garage door, offering a peek into the bustling Homewood community from decades ago.
“This picture really, really means a lot,” CEC Homewood Director Daren Ellerbee said of the photo she estimates was taken in the 1930s. “So hypothetically, if people stand on the street when the lights are working and look straight back in (they) see this photo, so whether they step foot in here or not, this is another way that we hope to draw people into the space.”
And once they get in the space, Ellerbee, a Pittsburgh native and Pitt alum, wants to help bridge connections between community members/leaders and Pitt as the center celebrates its grand opening Oct. 18.
The CEC will offer community residents and visitors a variety of services, including mentoring, legal consultations, IT assistance, career information sessions, health and wellness events and more.
“I believe one of my hopes for the space is to connect residents and other community members to opportunity,” Ellerbee said. “I think folks in Homewood want better, and I think that they deserve better because there have been decades of conversations around community organizing into community development and the time is right in this community for the University of Pittsburgh to have a home here.”
The completed Phase 1 of the center includes classrooms, art and photo galleries, a computer lab, a science room, a dining room/kitchen area, a “mess” room that can accommodate potentially messy projects and several other meeting spaces.
The art gallery will feature pieces from local Homewood artists. Pieces will rotate since they’ll also be for sale.
Phase 2, tentatively scheduled to finish fall 2019, will include dedicated health and wellness spaces.
Community leaders and other members are free to reserve the rooms for various needs. Ellerbee said she was thankful for the collaboration between organizations and “pillar groups” in the community who have “been doing work for decades.”
“And their guidance in helping to shape how Pitt fits into this landscape has been very, very important,” Ellerbee said. “So, I always like to tell people, you know, I like to complement what folks are doing here. We're not replacing or replicating.”
CEC Homewood also will have a dedicated office suite for Pitt-Assisted Communities & Schools, or PACS, with the School of Social Work. However, that’s just a fraction of the Pitt organizations that will frequent the center assisting the community with its needs.
Ellerbee said the CEC will give Pitt faculty, staff and students more chances to engage the community. And students will receive some hands-on professional experience that can’t be found inside a classroom.
An important part of “The Plan for Pitt,” the University’s strategic plan, the Community Engagement Centers have been under discussion since 2016. Kathy Humphrey, senior vice chancellor for engagement and secretary of the Board of Trustees, has been a staunch supporter of the program since the beginning, Ellerbee said.
It’s also a part of Pitt Neighborhood Commitments, which plans to strengthen community relationships through a minimum 15-year commitment on infrastructure and programming, according to the University. Another planned CEC will focus on Pittsburgh’s Hill District.
Ellerbee, who took on her position with the CEC in July 2017, said the respect she’s gotten from community members “means the world” to her. She said she hopes community members can see her and her work as a source of inspiration.
“I want to say a lot of people see me walking around and they see themselves, they see their cousin, they see their daughter,” Ellerbee said. “I'm pretty much the manifestation of a lot of hopes and dreams and prayers that people have for young people. Because my life could've went left at any given point in time.
“And I just had a praying family as well as a family that really, really valued education. So just having that foundation of education made the difference. … We will make the difference here too.”
CEC Homewood’s grand opening will take place from 6 to 8 p.m. Oct. 18 at 622 N. Homewood Ave.
Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-383-9905.