When Dave Carver, pastor at the First United Presbyterian Church in Crafton Heights, first came to the church 35 years ago, he immediately noticed something.
“The neighborhood was filled with children and teenagers and there was not any programming, ” Carver remembered.
So, he decided to do something about it.
He started a street hockey league in 1983 that revealed lots of enthusiasm for youth recreation in the area, and in 1987, he took the next step by starting an organization called The Open Door.
These days, The Open Door offers after school programs, summer camps and a recreational space to about 350 kids per year. But back then, just getting things up and running was a big challenge.
The first step? Finding a building. They settled on a structure down the street on Stratmore Avenue that had once housed a movie theater.
“The building itself had been vacant for more than 20 years and it was in horrible disrepair,” said Carver.
Carver needed to both buy the building and pay for the repairs, but the church was short on cash. So he had to look elsewhere for the funds.
“I essentially wrote letters, every month, to everybody I knew, asking them to send money to the church, “ said Carver.
Once the building had been purchased and was ready to be redone, the community pitched in. Local parents and kids, some as young as 5th grade, showed up. Labor unions, meanwhile, sent their apprentice plumbers, carpenters and cement masons to lend a hand and gain experience.
Overall, Carver estimates that the church spent about $27,000 on the project, while in-kind donations and volunteer work covered almost $100,000 in costs.
“There was the rehabilitation of the structure, but there was also a re-engagement in the neighborhood and there was an establishment of community that had not existed," Carver said. "And in some ways, the structure was the vehicle for that establishment of community."
Today, The Open Door remains a staple of that community. The main room near the entrance still has a stage, where the movie screen once sat. The space where the elevated rows of seats used to be has been cleared out to make room for a gym floor, with a basketball hoop.
This summer, the youth organization offered a six-week day camp where campers participated in arts, sports and field trips. Throughout the year, they also organize events like community clean-ups in Crafton Heights and other neighborhoods in the West End of Pittsburgh.
Pauline Bodnar Welsh, a Crafton Heights resident, is both a volunteer with the organization and the parent of a child who participates. She says the fact that older kids in the community help run the programs is a big plus for the youngsters.
“Just the mentor aspect of everything, it’s something that these young children need. You know, we drive past one of the boys’ house who mentors here, [and my child says,] ‘That’s where he lives! I know where he lives!’” said Bodnar Welsh.
And although the organization is affiliated with the nearby church, executive director Kristen Knouff stressed that everyone is welcome.
“You can be exactly who you are when you walk into the doors of The Open Door and the church,” said Knouff.
She explains that running children’s programs isn’t always easy. Problems from home or school can spill over. But in the end, the good outweighs the bad.
“It is totally worth it, every single day, to face those challenges, deal with those hardships, because of what we get to experience with these kids and their families,” said Knouff.
Next week, the Open Door’s After School program will start up again. Staff and volunteers will help students in kindergarten through fifth grade start the school year on a good note, with fun activities and help on their homework.