By Stacy Skiavo
Everyone needs a voice, possesses skills and deserves a chance to succeed. At Center of Life in Hazelwood, just outside of Pittsburgh, their mission is to provide the life skills and education necessary to be strong and to make their community strong.
In 1999, Executive Director of Center of Life, Tim Smith was struck with an idea. He imagined a place that could empower people and give them the resources to
contribute to their own community. “Wealth is not money, but money is the byproduct of wealth. If the people can recognize wealth as a skill or gift, they could manage that to make money and live better lives,” Smith thought.
After a few years of planning, the center opened in 2001. Since it’s opening, in addition to Smith, 17 other staff members work with people in the Pittsburgh area to strengthen families, improve literacy and work with children to improve their futures. The non-profit is broken up into several programs. Many of the programs focus heavily on music and instrumental education. Children may take part in jazz or New Orleans brass bands. They learn how to play the instruments to the level they can create their own music.
On the other side of the musical spectrum is the hip-hop program KRUNK (Kreating Realistic Urban New-School Knowledge). A production company ran by high school students that engage in rapping, singing, dancing, photography, recording and digital imaging. The group takes their show on the road, and markets their own work.
In combination with music, a health initiative message is connected with their performances. Thanks to the partnership with University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate
School of Public Health, teens conduct research to convey positive messages about mental and physical health to teens and perform in public schools.
Launched in 2005, KRUNK has taught students the building blocks of entrepreneurship, growth within themselves and has professionally displayed their own talents.
On the instrumental side, Center of Life provides COL Jazz, a youth program that teaches students to become musicians. Using music theory and essential fundamentals, students perform for the community and throughout the city of Pittsburgh. Several original albums have been produced from the program and a handful of tracks can be found on their website.
Focusing on academics, the Fusion program helps children understand their school work and provides a free tutor for students to excel in school. It gives extra assistance four nights a week, and directly participates with the parents or care givers of the child.
Following the Fusion session is Crossover, an activities program where children can relax and have fun. The center offers a variety of games from hockey to ping pong. Crossover runs five days a week at the center.
All of these programs are combined and exercised during Voices Summer Camp. The free camp is divided into two three-week sessions under the themes: Promoting a Healthy Lifestyle and the Tropical Rainforest. Over 200 children participate in mathematics, science, language arts, art, music, dance, social studies, writing, sports and more.
Camp is a time to continue the children’s growth, and spend quality time together throughout the weekdays. According to Smith, “There are so manyvoices out there. It’s a celebration of diversity and each individual has a voice and all is heard.”
This non-profit is not your average after school program, it a big part of the children and community’s lives. “Center of Life will be 15-years-old next year. I have seen many kids begin here in elementary school, graduate high school and then come back and work for us,” Smith said.
Thinking about the many children that have passed through the program, one child in particular came to mind for Smith. “He attended Center of Life all through elementary school and comes back to work during the summers from college. He grew up in Hazelwood and has seen a lot of his friends shot or killed. He made the decision to go to college and so something different. He’s respectful, intelligent and hungry for education. It makes himself better to come back and help the community.” Smith explained. Without his supportive staff, Smith would not have the center that stands today.
“We have some of the best people in the world that work at Center of Life. They care about what they’re doing and do a great job. The center exists because of the people that live in Hazelwood.” Smith continued.
Joining the organization only this past January, Director of External Relations, Marguerite Jarrett Marks might be new to the team, but understands the importance of the center, and all the good it brings to the community. It’s her job to raise money and create awareness in the community about Center of Life.
“I’ve learned most that everything is about the people. It’s one thing to know that in your heart and soul, and another thing to practice it,” Marks explained. Seven years ago Marks met Smith at a large non-profit gathering. There she was enlightened about the wonders of Smith’s organization.
“I heard Tim speak and was completely engaged. I then became engaged with Center of Life, and now ended up here. The energy, encouragement and empowerment draw you to the mission, and the results are critical in the equation. The children here go to secondary school, and then go on and make a living,” Marks said.
In order to keep the non-profit running, funds must be generated and partnerships must be formed. Admission to KRUNK and the instrumental performances aid their revenue. “I do a lot of connecting with local fundraisers, and write a lot of grants. Our annual golf outing and cultivation events also provide funds,” Smith said.
Most of the students involved with Center of Life and many of the staff members are born and raised in Hazelwood, but others in Pittsburgh neighborhoods find their way there as well. No matter where you’re from, as Smith says “it’s an environment where everyone has a sense of belonging, significance and security.”