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Fox Chapel teen puts design background to good use

| Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2012, 8:57 p.m.
Connor Uretsky of Fox Chapel, a senior at Winchester-Thurston School in East Liberty, has designed a poncho that can be distributed to homeless people to keep them warm and dry. He is designing it to be lighter, warmer and more portable than a sleeping bag. Uretsky is shown at his home in Fox Chapel in October 2012. Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review

When Connor Uretsky followed his brother, Logan, on his rounds assisting homeless people in Pittsburgh, he saw people sleeping under bridges and underpasses in wintry weather and knew he wanted to help.

“I had to create something that was warm and transportable and definitely more mobile than a sleeping bag,” said Connor, 17, of Fox Chapel.

“They have to sleep outside because of overcrowded shelters.”

Connor, a senior at Winchester-Thurston School, is creating a poncho that a homeless person could wear to keep warm during the day and while sleeping.

“I have a strong design background. I'm interested in fashion design, textile design and industrial design. I wanted to combine elements of all these,” he said.

Connor did research to find a fabric that would create something that was transportable, durable, waterproof, breathable and tear-resistant.

For his design, Connor combined Tyvek, an insulating material used in homes, protective packaging, portable vehicle covers and clothing; and a material that reflects body heat back to a person.

Connor used both fabrics in a poncho that has a hood that snaps at the neckline. He designed a deep, front pocket that fastens with Velcro to hold valuables; and a drawstring at the bottom that can be cinched at the waist during the day or drawn down around the feet at night.

Reflecting trim on the pocket and hood makes the user visible in the dark.

Connor's mother, Susan Uretsky, taught him to use a sewing machine to produce a prototype. He is tweaking the details, and plans to apply for a patent once his design is completed.

“I'm really proud of him,” said Logan Uretsky, 23, who was an outreach leader for Operation Safety Net during his service with the nonprofit AmeriCorps.

Operation Safety Net, part of Pittsburgh Mercy Health System, provides medical care and social services to the chronically street homeless.

“I like that he was inspired by something we did together,” Logan Uretsky said.

A former caseworker with Operation Safety Net says the poncho could be quite useful.

“I think that would assist a lot of homeless people,” says former caseworker Rachel Williams, a Carlow University graduate student in counseling. “They're constantly struggling with finding clothing that is durable and would keep them warm” in the winter.

Connor intends to ask homeless people to use his product and plans to approach foundations to fund production.

Connor said he hopes to study industrial and product design after graduating from high school and produce “anything that improves human interactions.”

Sandra Fischione Donovan is a freelance writer.

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