A Community’s Recovery Brings Nonprofit to Life
Pictured (L-R): Scott Wolovich, Executive Director; Zaheen Hussain, Director of Sustainability; Jamie Johnson, Manager of Performance Improvement, Daniel Stiker, Director of Culture + Operations
After Hurricane Ivan hit the area in 2004, communities in the Pittsburgh region experienced disastrous losses from flooding. Among those hit the hardest was Millvale.
During the storm Girty’s Run, the watershed that flows through the borough, swelled and flooded hundreds of businesses and homes. And twice within that month, brothers Scott and Brian Wolovich cleaned out the house that was once their great aunt’s. Brian had bought the home after she passed away, and Girty’s Run flows through the backyard.
“Both times it really devastated the community,” Scott said.
The Wolovich’s have deep family roots in Millvale. It’s where their father’s family settled when they emigrated from Poland, and where their father grew up. After he left the area for work and started his own family, Millvale became home base for the holidays. The fact that their parents were only children created more opportunities for the family to connect with the community.
“We had no first cousins, no aunts or uncles,” Scott said. “Growing up we were always close to our extended family, but our friends and the community became our family too.”
In the early nineties, Scott and his brother began traveling to New Orleans almost every year for Jazz Fest. Over that decade, the brothers’ relationship with the Louisiana city only deepened their appreciation for culture and vibrant communities. So when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans the year after Ivan struck Pittsburgh, Scott and Brian launched New Sun Rising as an immediate response to raise money for flood victims in both cities.
For its first event as a 501(c)(3), New Sun Rising hosted the Cultural Gumbo at Shadow Lounge to benefit the Tipitina’s Foundation in New Orleans and North Hills Community Outreach in Pittsburgh, which supported a lot of the flood relief in Millvale.
Shortly after, New Sun Rising became the fiscal sponsor for a community project that defined the nonprofit: the Millvale Community Library.
“In a really interesting way, the library was catalytic even for other projects we are currently working on almost 15 years later,” Scott said. “The fact that it was literally built by the community, and through that collective experience grew the interest in sustainable development. Millvale’s Ecodistrict planning process was born out of the library, we are on our way to becoming one of the first EcoDistricts Certified communities in the world, and has led to the creation of the multi-municipal TriBoro Ecodistrict.”
Another foundational project for the nonprofit was The Horizon Experience. Under the guidance of mentors, kids from 8 to 10 years old that lived in the city and suburbs would come together and attend events over the summer. The heart of the project was to strengthen interpersonal relationships and unlock individual human potential, and that core mission can still be seen in the 150 projects that New Sun Rising supports each year.
But for almost 10 years, when volunteers fueled the organization and the budget was $1,200, they were limited to serve only six projects a year through fiscal sponsorship.
“We created a structure to help grassroots leaders take action by reducing barriers, such as allowing people to receive grant funds and use NSR for the legal and financial side of things, but it got to the point where we were turning away three out of four projects who applied because we just didn’t have enough bandwidth,” Scott said.
Admittedly, during the nonprofits early years there was not an overall strategy besides mentoring and giving projects access to their 501(c)(3) umbrella. That caused the staff and board of directors step back and reflect on a vision for the larger ecosystem that they wanted to create. This led to the development of New Sun Rising’s Vibrant Communities Framework centered around strengthening culture, sustainability, and opportunity.
Cultural and shared values allow communities to develop to their “full authentic potential while respecting their history,” Scott said. And sustainability, both in development and environmentally, had always been a priority for the nonprofit as well as increasing access to equitable and regenerative economic opportunity.
“So these three things emerged as the foundation of our Vibrant Communities Framework, and when that happened a lot of things started falling into place,” Scott said.
In 2014, New Sun Rising received a $15,000 Small & Simple grant from Neighborhood Allies that stimulated larger investments, including $550,000 from The Henry L. Hillman Foundation and $35,000 from The Pittsburgh Foundation the following year.
“The idea of what New Sun Rising came from, the way the organization was launched… its purpose was to fill a gap they saw in the system and inherently they are a value for the community,” said Talia Piazza DePasquale, senior program manager for communications and marketing at Neighborhood Allies.
In 2017, the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, Neighborhood Allies, and the Borough of Millvale invested in New Sun Rising’s purchase of the old Moose Lodge on East Sherman Street in Millvale. The building is now headquarters for NSR and an emerging Food + Energy Hub, located just a few blocks away from their first project: the Milvale Community Library.
Although the nonprofit was born in Millvale, over the years of its existence New Sun Rising’s reach has crossed rivers helping to build vibrancy in over 43 Allegheny County neighborhoods, including the South Hilltop, Wilkinsburg, Northside, and McKees Rocks, to name a few. They have also been tapped to support sustainable development efforts in Beaver County.
To increase the effectiveness of capacity building and funding programs, New Sun Rising organizes services based upon the participant’s development stage to help them ignite, launch, and grow their work. Implementation strategies focus on creating nonprofit and business plans, stimulating financial and human resources, increasing access through connectivity, and strengthening a sense of identity.
Josh Lucas, founder of Work Hard Pittsburgh in Allentown, has worked with New Sun Rising since 2014 and said he believes they are able to “successfully walk the line” of what it means to have support from traditional foundations but still operate outside the box.
“[Scott] is pragmatic; he is an outcome driven executive director,” Lucas said. “He doesn’t get seduced by the politics or network he needs to maintain and successfully fund raise. He speaks the truth plainly and people see value in that.”