Dreams bigger than me


High atop the town of Munhall, Pennsylvania sits a majestic building, one of grandeur, if you will.  Some may say it’s a hidden gem of Pittsburgh.  With bricks of an orange hue, adorned by windows so striking, the architecture is simply something to marvel at.

The Carnegie Library of Homestead, a historic structure, has been part of its community for 115 years.  Founded by steel-industry pioneer Andrew Carnegie, this landmark overlooks the vast site of what was once the Homestead Steel Works.  A significant staircase, well-lit by black lampposts, leads up to the library’s entrance – duel front doors – strikingly rich in color. 

But it’s what’s behind these doors that really matter.

Despite the cold winter that Pittsburgh has faced, the air seems warmer outside, as the sun shines brightly on the area.  Children walk along the tree-lined street, dressed as though spring were near and winter was long-forgotten. Running up to the staircase, they are anxious to see what awaits them inside.

Pittsburgh, which recently celebrated its 250 years as a city, has roots deep in breathtaking architecture, world-class steel-production, breakthrough medicine and legendary athletics. A leader throughout its history in innovation, Pittsburgh carries on that tradition in new technologies.

Thanks to the generous and charitable support of the Heinz Youth Philanthropies, part of the Heinz Endowments, The Carnegie Library of Homestead will forever be changed.  And so will these doors.  Due to a joint partnership with Oakland-based non-profit organization Idea Foundry and a grant of $25,000, the library has gained a place where children can prosper and learn modern skills – a Creative Technology Learning Lab.

The entrance of the library is still – people reading and studying.  And in the back right corner sits a room.  A room that, just weeks ago, was empty.  It’s now filled with state-of the art computers, stocked with both professional and creative software applications, as well as mini-keyboards and headsets.  But that’s not the only thing it’s filled with.  There are students – some quiet and focused, while others are just arriving, beaming with excitement.  This is the inaugural lab, a place that’s bringing light to their eyes.

It’s open to middle and high school students, at no cost.  And while the library conveniently serves students in local neighborhoods, those from any part of Pittsburgh are welcome with open arms.  Idea Foundry, an economic development organization, chose this location, in part, to provide easy accessibility to participants, but also to augment educational resources in the area. Students are coming here to learn creative technology, something that is fun to them.  And they’re coming because they want to be here. 

As a soft tone echoes in the background, a voice is about to be heard.  “Miss Emily?” a young girl tugs on the mentor’s cardigan – shy at first, but anxious to get assistance. Better known to the students as “Miss Emily,” Emily Salsberry is the Library Services Coordinator and serves as a youth coach.  Eager for the students to learn new computer literacy skills, she says, “It will be very rewarding to see them use technology in a more meaningful way.”  A few of these faces, she sees almost daily.  Carol Shrieve, Director of Administration, refers to them as the three-block kids.  “They walk from a three-block radius every day after school.”  Shrieve comments that they “get travelers too,” and hopes that more students throughout the city will visit the lab to experience its offerings.

This soft voice isn’t the only one that wants to be heard.  A boy of small stature sits in the corner, headset on, eyes tightly shut.  His fingers embrace the keyboard, and a smile radiates his face.  Swaying to the music he just created, a sense of joy fills his being.  And while his backpack and dreams may seem bigger than him, he’s realizing success. But most of all, he’s having fun. “I made so much music,” he exclaimed with laughter.  “Maybe someday my song could be in a movie.”  And with the milestone that he’s just accomplished, maybe it will. He seems delighted, but he’s ambitious.

Learning creative technology will help these students with future endeavors, both personal and professional.  And because the lab is voluntary, they can explore programs of their own choice, at their own pace.  Open during regular library hours, the lab features themed-workshops four nights a week, better known as Teen Tech Zone.  Thanks to an arrangement by Idea Foundry, local industry professionals will be on hand to serve as mentors, while emphasizing the workshop themes of movies, creative arts, game art and music.  And equally important, students can gain acknowledgement for their work.  Upon completion of projects, they can earn certifications or virtual badges, as part of the Mozilla Open Badge Program.  This will provide them with legitimate credentials, allowing them to build on their resumes and jump-start their young lives.

This is just the beginning of the library’s revitalization. With a considerable amount of unused space and several goals in sight, the library plans to transform its premises into a thriving community hub.  The addition of this lab will be the first step in doing so.  There’s also optimism that other organizations will follow this model.  With high hopes for the future, Shrieve states, “Our long-term goal is to have a STEAM Lab (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math).  This is the A part of it.  Children love art, but they don’t recognize that their interests could possibly be in math or science.”  Claiming that they don’t know until they try, she adds, “You have to be able to count the beats in music and do arithmetic, so they’re realizing that they may be good in math too.”

And on this warmer-than-usual day, they’re just glad the students are here.  They’re serving as an inspiration to their classmates and their friends, but above all, to themselves. 

The sun is beginning to set, and the evening is turning cool.  The lampposts have started to glow.  Kids are scrambling out the door, as the workshop has concluded for the night.  And while the room is bare, as are the trees outside, their hearts are surely not.  They can now look forward to many tomorrows.

For days like these, the Heinz Endowments will forever be thanked.  With continual efforts to make southwestern Pennsylvania an outstanding place to reside, they encourage learning at its best.  Not only have they helped to create a room where creativity and knowledge can flourish, but most importantly, where dreams can be made. 

Students interested in registering for the workshops can call 412-462-3444 or email techlab@homesteadlibrary.org.  For further information, they can also visit www.creativetechnologylabs.com.