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Pittsburgh nonprofit that helps others could use some help

| Monday, May 7, 2012, 11:58 p.m.
Volunteer tutor Cindy Adams of Wexford plays the Memory Game with Elijah Miles and Tilee Miller, both 9, at The Pittsburgh Project on Monday, May 7, 2012. Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Renee Hawkins (right) helps Kameron Butler, 8, with a math problem at The Pittsburgh Project on Monday, May 7, 2012. The nonprofit -- which offers an after-school program, day camps, service camps, leadership training and preparation for college and jobs -- has fallen on hard times and has lost much of its funding. Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review

The Pittsburgh Project, a nonprofit group that sends youths to fix the homes of needy senior citizens, needs repair itself.

The North Side-based group approached collapse this year after its revenue plunged, forcing the agency to slash its budget from $3 million to almost $1.9 million. Its board will meet on Wednesday to consider a new direction.

"Things will look different. We're examining how we can do things more efficiently and how we can do things with less resources," said Karen Dreyer, interim director.

Saleem Ghubril founded the agency in 1985 to address social ills. The group offers an after-school program, day camps, service camps, leadership training and preparation for college and jobs.

Four years ago, Ghubril left to head The Pittsburgh Promise, a $250 million scholarship program for graduates of the city's public schools.

"(The Pittsburgh Project was) hit with a significant leadership transition and the Great Recession at the same time, which is a huge challenge for any organization," said Diana Bucco, president of The Forbes Funds.

Forbes, which specializes in helping struggling nonprofits, gave the organization a $20,000 grant to hire a consultant to help it dig out of its financial hole.

To ease the void created by Ghubril's departure, foundations gave extra money for information technology and the hiring of a money-raising specialist.

"The director of development turned out not to be a good addition to the staff and that person is no longer with us," said Jay Roy, board president.

In addition, the executive director left to spend more time with her children, one of whom has special needs.

As the agency's revenue waned, the group laid off 14 of 52 employees by January. More than 1,700 youths from around the country will attend service camps where they will fix the homes of the elderly. But agency officials are waiting to find out this summer whether they will get grants to keep the after-school program going in the fall.

"More will be laid off in August without ongoing financial support," Dreyer said.

Children in the after-school program hope that does not happen. Many planted daisies on Monday, received help with homework or enjoyed a card game to sharpen memory.

"They help you reach your goal," said Rayne Williams, 10, of the North Side.

If the project cut or closed its after-school program, she might not achieve her goal of getting better in math.

"I wouldn't get any help and I would probably fail the grade," she said.

Njai Avery, 7, of the North Side works on vocabulary with his volunteer tutor, Josh Hjernvick, 32, of Gibsonia.

"They give us snacks for free. We get to play. They give us help with our homework and we get to have activities," Ngai said.

He said he would feel sad if he could not return. "I couldn't see my friends and my teacher, Miss Renee."

Bucco said children such as Rayne and Njai are the reason that foundations and The Forbes Funds are trying to help the project.

"All those kids need a safe place to go," she said.

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