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Manchester Bidwell to expand to Israel; sights set on Japan

| Sunday, May 25, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Drew Mathieson Center grower Laurie Follweiler of Penn Hills waters plants growing at the greenhouse at Manchester-Bidwell Corporation in Manchester on Monday, May 19, 2014. Students in the horticulture job training program work in the one-acre greenhouse, growing and selling orchids, among other plants, to area businesses, non-profits and florists. The nonprofit group is launching affiliates in London, Japan and with Palestinians in Israel over the next two years.

Two years after he hatched the idea of expanding his novel arts education and job training center to overseas locations, Bill Strickland intends to make good on the vow this fall in Israel.

Then, he said, he hopes to open clones of Manchester Bidwell Corp. in an impoverished area of East London and in Japan, to help tsunami victims.

“My goal is to build 200 centers in the world, 100 in the U.S. and 100 in the world,” said Strickland, president and CEO of the North Side center.

There's no magic to those numbers, he said: “If we built 10 more, I'd be very happy.”

The nonprofit designed to boost achievement and self-esteem in young people, and to show off arts and crafts to visitors, has affiliates in San Francisco, Grand Rapids, Mich., Cleveland, Cincinnati, New Haven, Conn., Boston, Buffalo and Brockway, Pa.

Strickland plans sites in Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles and Sharon in Mercer County.

“We have much to learn from Pittsburgh. There's a need for a vocational center like that,” said Elad Strohmayer, deputy consul general of Israel for the Mid-Atlantic.

The Israeli center will be located in Akko, or Acre, a city with about a 75-25 percent split of Jews and Arabs. Mark Frank, a volunteer helping to start it, said the site may open as a demonstration project and then expand to accommodate 100 students in three to five years.

“It's unfortunate that the Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews have all too little contact with each other,” Frank said. “This would be one possibility that, if history is any lesson, kids will come together and get to do something they love to do in a mixed, shared, social setting.”

Sense of importance

Strickland, 66, has told his story of struggling at Oliver High School until he heard jazz music and saw the beauty of ceramics that teacher Frank Thomas made at his potter's wheel.

Even today Strickland throws clay in the center's studio. He runs an after-school program offering arts classes in the ceramics, design, digital and photography studios. Adults can study culinary arts, horticulture, pharmacy technology and other medical specialties in the training classes.

On one recent day, in a classroom that replicates a commercial kitchen, a teacher wearing a chef's hat and white uniform instructed students on purchasing and ordering food.

In a nearby laboratory, students wearing safety goggles, blue gloves and white frocks were learning the concept of viscosity by measuring the flow of liquids.

Manchester Bidwell puts young people into quality facilities and encourages them to be creative while learning. In the center's lobby, hand-carved walnut benches, Amish-style quilts and 7-foot-tall hand-painted Chinese vases give students a sense of the importance of their surroundings.

Sean Justice, a senior at Perry High School, sculpted a toothy dragon in the studio and said he'd like to keep making ceramics later in life, though not professionally.

“This is a real good place to relax and get my mind off things when I get stressed out,” said Justice, 18, of Brighton Heights. “Coming here, I'll recharge.”

Independent affiliates

Strickland estimates it costs up to $5 million to open and operate a center for three years. It's up to the centers outside Pittsburgh to raise the money — mostly from foundations, corporations and wealthy individuals.

Affiliated centers pay Manchester Bidwell a yearly fee of $150,000 for five years for use of the Manchester Bidwell model, though they run independently. They must offer the arts and vocational training, and treat students with respect by providing motivated faculty and top-notch facilities and equipment.

“It's a matter of treating people like an asset, rather than liabilities,” said Maria D. Anderson, vice president of the National Center for Arts & Technology, an offshoot of Manchester Bidwell.

Strickland announced the idea for the Japanese center two years ago but acknowledges the foreign centers are harder to start. Distance is a barrier, he said, and it takes one leader with a passion for the idea and a core group of people to get it going.

He wants to open a center in Ogatsu, ground zero for the 2011 tsunami that killed more than 15,000 people, injured scores of others, and caused extensive damage in northeastern Japan. Hundreds of thousands of people were affected by evacuations following tsunami-related nuclear accidents.

“There are poor folks, a lot of them living in tents, even to this day,” Strickland said.

He expects to open the center in Israel first, London second, and then Japan. If he gets Arabs and Jews interacting in a classroom, he may accomplish what diplomats try to do.

“When people have a reason to live, they don't have a reason to die,” Strickland said. “Terrorism thrives on ignorance and illiteracy. This therapy will work there.”

Bill Zlatos is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7828 or bzlatos@tribweb.com.

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