Above: Community leaders take part in the Launch Sto-Rox Incubator: Remixer event
To open an NAACP chapter, one hundred signatures are needed, each accompanied by $30 for the annual membership fee.
In distressed communities that membership fee can become the reason why a chapter doesn’t open, as opposed to lack of interest. For over 80 McKees Rocks residents, the Grow Sto-Rox collaborative is covering the cost.
“This is a real way to get people involved, and the first thing we’ve put our names on as Grow Sto-Rox,” said Taris Vreck, Executive Director of McKees Rocks Community Development Corporation.
The Grow Sto-Rox collaborative includes: Communities in Schools of Pittsburgh Allegheny County (CISPAC), Focus on Renewal (FOR), McKees Rocks Community Development Corporation (MRCDC), Sto-Rox School District (SRSD), and Zellous Hope Project (ZH).
Albeit this is their debut as one entity, the organizations that are Grow Sto-Rox started to coordinate their efforts in 2014 when SRSD Superintendent Frank Dalmas called on local leaders to support critical youth and family programming.
“I always thought of that as the beginning of what has become Grow Sto-Rox,” Vreck said.
Today, the collaborative exists to improve the quality of life of Sto-Rox residents through programs which are trauma informed, strength-based, and create equitable economic impact. The programs are continually molded by data gathered from community surveys and in person feedback, but an initial survey taken six years ago is regarded as the eye-opener for understanding the challenges Sto-Rox residents face.
In 2015, MRCDC and FOR partnered with New Sun Rising (NSR) to administer a community survey by a resident-led outreach team that identified the challenges and needs of the community, as well as the public’s perceptions of FOR and its programming.
“Oh my God, did we learn a lot,” said Cindy Haines, Executive Director of FOR.
Around 200 people completed the survey. For Black residents, their top three concerns were Violence, Transportation, and Food Security. For white residents, their top three concerns were Transportation, Creative/Social Connections, and Economics/Financial.
“Even if they were neighbors, it just showed that when you walk out your door, are you going to be afraid of gun violence? [For many people], it’s the way you wake up in the morning,” Haines said.
According to 2020 US Census data, the total population of McKees Rocks is 5,919 with 55.5 percent identifying as white and 33 percent identifying as Black. In Stowe Township, the total population is 6,197 with 69 percent identifying as white and 23 identifying as Black.
Violence in a community has detrimental impacts on residents of every age. Since January of this year, there have been over 30 shootings in the area. Bridget Clement, executive director of CISPAC, said a lot of students don’t feel safe walking to school, so they don’t go.
Another piece of the puzzle is understanding how stress at home hinders a student’s ability to learn, said Sto-Rox School Board President Samantha Levitzki.
“We can’t serve our students to their full potential when their moms and dads are struggling,” she said. “If the guardian is stressed out and worrying about money, lack of healthcare… it filters into the kiddo and we want to alleviate that stress so they can grow.”
According to the Vibrancy Index, 27.5 percent of the Sto-Rox population live in poverty and median household income is $37,084 which is 62% lower than the Allegheny County average. Index scores for Sustainable Development Goal 1: No Poverty and 8: Work & Employment are worse than 90% and 81% of the County, respectively.
Through critical needs programs, Zellous Hope and FOR have been able to provide immediate assistance to families and individuals unable to meet basic needs.
Haines said that Sto-Rox is a designated food desert and about 40 percent of residents don’t own a car. In the initial survey, when asked about where they got their groceries, some responded by saying that FOR’s pantry was their primary food source. Of the some 1,500 students at SRSD, 100 percent of them qualify for free-and-reduced price lunch. Grow Sto-Rox partners collaborated on food distribution throughout the pandemic, led by FOR. They’re also working with Grounded Strategies to bring a community garden and collective healing program to fruition.
What ZH is able to offer is emergency funds that help people cover urgently important bills, such as an automotive expense that could keep someone from getting to their job. Both ZH and FOR offer services that provide the community with diapers, feminine hygiene products, cleaning supplies, and other necessities. Located inside the Father Ryan Arts Center, FOR shares the building with the Sto-Rox Public Library and is able to offer additional support and programming like Positive Parenting and Family Foundations Early Head Start.
Denise Zellous, executive director of ZH, said it’s important to move away from the “cookie cutter” approach of assuming what residents need, and instead asking them directly through conversations, phone calls, videos, and surveys what they need to improve their lives. Her “Things to Know Show” via Facebook Live has quickly become a reliable place to learn about the opportunities being coordinated in response by core members of Grow Stow-Rox.
“What is most important to [Grow Sto-Rox] is that people know our main goal is to bring a strength-based approach to this community and not just put a bandaid on addressing the symptoms of what we believe is wrong, but get to the root cause,” Zellous said.
The collaborative understands they face the significant challenge of unraveling generational poverty, and that their efforts need to be trauma informed. As a group, they’ve attended trainings and learned different types of interventions to use when engaging with the community that can help people through the “trauma block,” Vreck said.
To implement this in a meaningful way, the anchor organizations need to continue the slow process of building relationships and transferring power to residents. Vreck said he knows the community is distrustful because “they hear about millions of dollars coming in [to Sto-Rox] and they don’t see a difference.” So, the collaborative decided that one of the first steps to strengthening their relationship with Sto-Rox would be to put the decision making power for investments into the hands of community members.
The Community Investment Fund was launched in partnership with New Sun Rising and seeded by the Wells Fargo Foundation, offering $2,500 grants to micro businesses and nonprofit organizations serving Sto-Rox with less than five employees and an annual revenue less than $100,000. The deadline to apply closed on May 7, 2021.
“This is a small pilot program, but the idea is putting authority and control of the funds into the hands of residents and letting them start to make the choices.” Vreck said. “They can show an impact on the ground that builds trust and encourages people to get involved.”
There have also been serious discussions of building a multipurpose campus in Mckees Rocks, similar to Bidwell Training Center in Manchester or 7800 Susquehanna in Homewood. The development of a campus within walking distance for residents would provide incredible opportunities for adults and older teens in the community.
That, tied in with plans for the Sto-Rox Junior/Senior High School to become an after hours learning hub for kids and adults, is helping individuals “get into positions where they can hold their families together,” Levitzki said.
“We want to make sure that our students and parents are comfortable, and their living to a successful standard,” she said. “We want to make sure they have all the access and resources, and that’s what we’re trying to rebuild here in our community.”
After completing a strategic framework and initial operational plan made possible by a grant from The Forbes Funds, the most significant challenge the collaborative currently faces is finding and funding dedicated capacity to backbone the cause. Right now, each of the five organizations is stretched to their limit.
Haines said that “Grow Sto-Rox has been training, learning, coalescing, monitoring, and cementing the five relationships,” and together they hope to raise dedicated funding that can support a shared staff member who will maintain and build upon the momentum. In May, the collaborative was approved for inclusion in New Sun Rising’s fiscal sponsorship program.
With the right support, the ability to communicate, engage, and encourage the talents of residents at this level would be revolutionary.
To learn more about the goals and guiding principles of Grow Sto-Rox, click here.