Homewood's Beverly Howell proves one person can make a difference
The kids in the Homewood neighborhood of Pittsburgh call her Grandma Bev. The parents call her that, too, as does just about everyone else who knows her.
It was three years ago when Beverly Howell sat on her front porch watching the local children run up and down the street, wondering to herself, "Why doesn't somebody do something?"
"Then I felt something kick me, saying, 'What are you doing?'" Howell says of her epiphany.
That's when she started having parties called Grandma's Play Day for the kids. Cookies, juice and chips were part of the fun, and it was free for the children.
She was able to put the events together with help from organizations, such as Grounded Strategies, Love My Neighbor, Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens and people from the neighborhood.
She hoped for more, though, after watching the kids enjoy themselves.
"I wanted to do something different," she says with a wide smile. "These kids need to see the trees and the flowers."
That began the transformation of the empty lot next to her house into Grandma's Green Zone.
She had been working with Grounded Strategies as a community care steward. They gave her gloves so the kids could help clean up the trash safely.
They connected her with other organizations to get plants and landscaping.
One thing the nonprofit organization does is work toward blight mitigation and vacant land reclamation. But Grounded Strategies is multifaceted, dedicated to communities all over the city of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County helping community groups and local government make things better.
"We recognize that land is the foundation, literally, of every community," executive director Evaine K. Sing says. "If you're expecting people to thrive, you want their environment to support that."
Sing sits in her office as her dog, Wickett, realizes it's lunch time and makes the rounds looking for a few treats.
His title is "official greeter for visitors" and he sets a welcoming tone for the building.
Grounded Strategies works closely with municipalities to help them realize their goals when it comes to making improvements.
"These are not our projects, Sing says. "These are driven by the community, which is exactly what we want. It's nice to be able to know you are fulfilling a need."
They also can be a conduit of information and help for individuals, pointing them in the right direction as the organization did for Howell.
It can be confusing for people who want to convert land, and Grounded Strategies can help navigate the government bureaucracy.
Helping the locals
On the other hand, it also works with those government agencies to help make the process easier and friendlier for the locals.
"We dig in the dirt alongside the residents, as well as sit at the table with the mayor and his staff," Sing says.
They provide information, tools, workshops and more with a goal in mind.
"To focus on how to make vacant land not a liability, but rather an opportunity," Sing says.
With a staff that includes landscape architects, planners, policy experts, horticulture specialists and those versed in social work, Grounded Strategies has grown over the past 11 years into an invaluable resource for communities.
"Grounded gave me those metal flowers," Howell says, while pointing the the garden art in a bed of aromatic agastache.
There's a pollinator garden filled with coneflowers and other plants covered in bees. She has taken old tires and transformed them into art with colorful spray paint.
The kids use the large pieces cut from a tree to sit on, they are also painted a wide array of bright colors.
Her hand-painted signs encourage the kids to smell or taste herbs and explore the garden.
Sitting on one of the painted stumps overlooking the garden, she reflects on why the space is important for herself and, more importantly, the neighborhood kids.
"I get a lot of enjoyment out of it, it's very rewarding, it gives me purpose, a reason to wake up every day, she says. "You don't have to live in a ghetto, you can live just as nice as everybody else. You need to take pride in where you live."
The kids will play football in the open area of the garden, but know better than to stray into the garden beds. As she thinks about what the children receive from time spent here, she chokes back the tears.
"I hope they grow up and say there was this lady that thought we were so important that she took time with us to make our neighborhood better," Howell says. "They don't even realize what it's doing for them, but I know it's giving them inner peace."