Justin LeWinter in a blue face mask standing next to a truck and a pile of cardboard boxes
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How a simple weekly phone call delivered more than 100 meals to families

  • Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Justin LeWinter, program manager with Macedonia Family and Community Enrichment Center (FACE) in Pittsburgh’s Hill District has been busy getting food to people in need during COVID-19.

“When this started, we were purchasing food for our lunch box program by physically going to the store — but buying groceries in bulk during the pandemic just isn’t possible,” he said. FACE needed help, and his fellow community members stepped in through a simple phone call.

Between 20 and 25 people from local organizations, schools, businesses, elected offices and residents have joined weekly calls stood up to share resources and create new connections.

“It’s nice to hear the full scope of what’s happening from different individuals, groups and organizations,” said LeWinter. “We’re able to collaborate and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got a resource that may be able to assist you with this,’ and gives us the opportunity to make sure what we’re doing is getting to the right people.”

“On the call, I let the group know we had lunch boxes available to distribute to anyone who needed them, but we were struggling to restock.”

LeWinter was connected with the Hill District Consensus Group, who then connected LeWinter to the Pittsburgh Food Bank to bridge the gap in supplies. According to LeWinter, the food bank was able to distribute 150 boxes of shelf stable food to Macedonia FACE’s Lunchbox Project. Since March, LeWinter said Macedonia FACE has been able to deliver 120 lunch boxes, which LeWinter said feed families of three to four people.

With so many organizations making great strides to help its neighbors, Kirk Holbrook, director of the Hill District Community Engagement Center (CEC) and longtime neighborhood resident quickly realized the CEC could help, too.

“The pandemic has allowed us to be a true partner in real time — that the CEC will be with and alongside the community during our most challenging time,” said Holbrook. “It’s truly crystalized our goal of what the CECs are meant to be and heightens our sense of commitment.”

LeWinter said Holbrook’s follow-through bas been “amazing.”

“As soon as those phone calls end, and all week, Kirk is bridging connections,” said LeWinter.

For instance, LeWinter said Holbrook reached out to him after speaking with a community member who indicated that there were residents in need of food in one of the Hill District’s senior high rises.

“We were able to distribute food to them,” said LeWinter. “Kirk stays on top of it up until it’s completely resolved. He’s connected every step of the way.”

Yet another connection made on the calls: an effort led by Ujamaa Collective, a local nonprofit that supports Africana women. The collective employed seamstresses to produce machine-washable masks to distribute to the community, free of charge.

“We were able to rally support behind the mask-making effort, and also found pockets in the community who needed masks,” said Holbrook. “It was a win-win.

LeWinter said that Macedonia FACE has also been a recipient of the mask donation and they’ve been able to provide them to individuals in need.

Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle, whose district includes the Hill District, takes part in the weekly phone calls as well.

“The Hill District is a very passionate community, and residents of the Hill care deeply about one another. We’re seeing that play itself out on these phone calls,” said Lavelle, who also resides in the neighborhood. “We’re seeing the spirit of community come forward.”

When the pandemic subsides, Holbrook said he looks forward to physically engaging with residents and community organizations that have become closely connected while apart.

About the Hill District CEC

As part of Pitt’s Neighborhood Commitments, the Community Engagement Centers (CECs) create a front door to the University in the heart of the Hill District and Homewood neighborhoods. With programming and services for children, adults, seniors and families, the CECs create a space for neighborhood partners, community-based organizations, residents and Pitt students and faculty to collaborate and share experiences.

The Hill District CEC currently calls the historic Blakey Program Center home.

Director Kirk Holbrook, along with community partners and stakeholders, is looking ahead to plan for the Hill District CEC’s permanent space in the New Granada Theater, a theater built in 1928 whose halls once filled with music from famous jazz musicians from around the world.

The re-imagined space, said Holbrook, will be complete with a STEAM Studio, computer lab, classrooms and conference rooms, and will be anchored by involvement from schools across the University. There will be dedicated spaces for the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics, the Jazz Program, the schools of social work and education, and the Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence.

“We can’t be naive to a history that’s been challenging,” said Holbrook. “We’re working closely to envision what it means to move toward future.”

But first, to get through the pandemic, what Holbrook said really keeps him going is seeing collaborations come together.

“The most beautiful part of this has been being able to witness organizations come together to support one another, with no motive other than to address the needs of the people in the Hill District,” he said. “The CEC is working behind the scenes to make those connections.”

Learn more about the Hill District CEC and the CEC in Homewood.