Church center mentors aspiring entrepreneurs

Diana Nelson Jones
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
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Pittsburgh — – The triplex of row houses in the city was notorious for its active crack scene before the Rev. John Wallace’s church bought it in 2005 and renovated it.

Today, the triplex is, among other things, The Maker’s Place, a hub of production for middle and high school students in the Oasis Project.

Oasis was created last year as an outgrowth of after-school programs that began three years before. An arm of the Bible Center Church, Oasis encourages community development with a focus on youth being the drivers of their own economic development.

Wallace, the Bible Center’s pastor and a professor of social work at the University of Pittsburgh, said the value of a maker’s economy has resonance in a disadvantaged neighborhood.

“We have boys and girls making and selling items that blur gender lines. When you suggest making lip balm, boys will say, ‘ehhh?’ until you talk to them about making it and selling it. Then they’re like, ‘Hmm, my Mom would buy that,’ ” he said. “That was a revelation for me, and we have girls using saws.”

“The maker movement hasn’t reached youth in disadvantaged areas, but they can tap the African-American market better than anyone,” said Jomari Peterson, the community economic development manager for Oasis.

He also serves as a maker mentor, having studied engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University.

“One goal we have is to expose them to different things so they can follow” whatever passion might grow, he said.

Debralyn Woodberry-Shaw, program manager of the Maker’s Place, said she hopes to increase the number of participants this fall to 30. Fifteen children participated this summer.

The Maker’s Place is an entrepreneurial project that uses math, science, engineering, technology and art. The Maker’s Clubhouse is a component for elementary students that Oasis operates with Pittsburgh Faison arts academy at the school.

The curriculum for the older students includes financial management, business development, mobile app creation and website development, including four electives: craftsmanship, art, fashion design and music technology. In each of these areas, professionals mentor the students to produce and market salable items.

When students return to the Maker’s Place in the fall, they’ll work on a marketing plan to sell online the items that did not sell at this summer’s Maker’s Faire.

The makers’ economy is one of a dozen projects at Oasis that range from basketball camp to summer dinners. Dinner’s Ready! is a meal and mentoring group that brings children to the table with adults, sometimes their parents, to talk, listen and learn mealtime etiquette.

Oasis has support from the Richard King Mellon Foundation, the Sprout Fund, the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, the Bible Center Church and individual donors, but it also helps support itself with a transportation service. It contracts with other nonprofits to shuttle children to their programs.

“We provide this service for less than they would pay otherwise,” Wallace said, adding that many families don’t have convenient transportation.

Oasis staff meets regularly with staff from other Homewood nonprofits to coordinate, reduce duplication and fill gaps in all their services. In his role at Pitt, Wallace also brings college and graduate students into the mix of mentoring and staffing.

“We all know the importance of community and conversation,” he said. “Collaboration is critical to this work. The needs are too great for any of us to do it” in isolation.

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