Murrysville student pastor envisions safe haven with social-media app

| Wednesday, April 30, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Though social media sometimes can be a battlefield for teens, a local pastor is hoping to use it to offer a safe haven.

The Rev. Dan Hertzler, student pastor at Cornerstone Ministries in Murrsyville, thought up an app that protects users and allows them to ask questions anonymously in a private social network.

“If you can imagine back in the '90s or so, you had the suicide hot lines,” Hertzler said. “This is sort of a new version, since most students don't use phones for talking, but texting.”

Called SodaPop, the Android app is in beta testing mode. To create the app, Hertzler paired with program designer C. Scott Gilbert, founder and director of Brookville-based AG Logic.

One of SodaPop's key features is the ability for users to connect with trusted and confidential sources on the other end.

In the case of the church, it will be trained members. In other cases, such as a high school, Hertzler said, it could be a member of the guidance staff. The app is being designed so that it can be customized for particular organizations and so that no one can access it without a code.

With the April 9 Franklin Regional knife attack still fresh in the minds of many, the need for such an app might seem clear.

The idea for the app was spurred on by a another local incident. In October, a teen who occasionally had attended Cornerstone Ministries committed suicide.

“As we reached out to offer some help, they found the student had written a lot of thoughts and (was) journaling in his iPhone and never shared it with anybody,” Hertzler said.

The goal with the app, Gilbert said, is to make sure no one suffers in silence.

“But we didn't want it to be a sad app. So we've wrapped the feature in an addictive — and super fun — really cool social sharing app.”

Gilbert said the app, which will be available through the Apple store in later this month, has been well-received. He anticipates “hundreds of thousands of downloads” in the first few months.

SodaPop recently was nominated for a 2014 Design and Technology Award by the Pittsburgh Technology Council. Winners will be announced at the council's May 8 awards gala.

“Everybody who sees it, love it. We've gotten great feedback,” Gilbert said. “People can't wait to get their hands on it.”

Julie Martin is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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