Media Coverage | How a New Youth Center Aims To Reinvigorate an Under-Resourced Pittsburgh Community

Jun 22, 2023

By: Deinse Bonura, Pittsburgh Magazine | June 21, 2023 | Read the full article

The youth center at the Homewood-Brushton YMCA is the first of two spaces for residents to gain access to cutting-edge technology. An adult space will open at the Homewood branch of CCAC in August.

Youth Center1


Youth who enter the Homewood-Brushton branch of the YMCA leave with more inspiration, connection and confidence to pursue a career path of their choosing.

Last month marked the future of hands-on learning at the branch thanks to a partnership between the Verizon Community Forward Initiative and Neighborhood Allies.

Youth and young adults between the ages of 9-12 and 14-21 now have an expanded space, the Verizon Community Forward Homewood-Brushton Youth Learning Center, to experiment with cutting-edge STEAM technology (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics). Expanded programming for 13-year-olds will also be added in the near future.

The new space allows young people to print their faces with a 3D printer, cut a logo into a keychain with a laser cutter, learn about computer coding, make their own T-shirts and even create art for their albums produced in the Lighthouse Project recording studio — all ways for children to “access and achieve technological and digital skills in an increasingly digital world,” a press release from Verizon reads.

This is the first of two centers to open in Pittsburgh as part of the Verizon Community Forward Initiative, which aims to reinvigorate community spaces in cities across the country, providing access to free resources and enhancing hands-on learning with cutting-edge technology. Pittsburgh was selected as one of four pilot cities for the program, and the second center serving adult learners is slated to open in August at the Community College of Allegheny County Homewood-Brushton Center.

Neighborhood Allies’ partnership with Verizon has also extended to supporting STEAM and digital skills programs at the University of Pittsburgh Community Engagement Center in the Hill District and the Homewood Children’s Village. With Verizon’s support, these programming partners have served more than 8,000 participants since spring 2021.

Zena Ruiz has served as the Y’s STEAM program director since February and notes the addition of the youth center allows the YMCA staff to “provide robust digital programming, partner with other organizations to uplift our community as a whole and integrate many components of what the Homewood-Brushton Y already offers into new holistic, multifaceted programs.”

“With the launch of this space, we’re excited to host a STEM Coding Lab during our summer camp season for robotics and coding sessions and host Homewood Children’s Village Photography Learn and Earn program,” she continues. “New offerings coming this fall include STEAM Achievers (a mentorship program that connects middle school youth with professionals in STEAM-related fields), sewing machine workshops, Open Studios (a badging system-based program where participants ages 15+ to be introduced to our space and learn the new equipment through small one-off projects to build their proficiency) and Senior Digital Literacy Days.”

Itha Cao, director of digital inclusion and innovation with Neighborhood Allies, says the youth center and adult maker space projects have been in the works since 2019, but were delayed due to supply chain issues caused by the pandemic.

“The YMCA is a community anchor, both in the Homewood neighborhood and across the country,” she adds. “The new youth center introduces technology to youth who may not have access to it otherwise. We are hoping to achieve digital equity by meeting them where they are at and expand on their skills from there.”

Cao notes the pandemic really shined a spotlight on the importance of achieving digital equity.

“It showed us how important it is to have access and to build upon those skills and confidence levels to let our youth know that they can work in any field they want to,” she says.

Cao notes when the youth center opened in May, local children were thrilled with the changes.

“They saw the space in its ‘before stage’ with just a few tables and cabinets, and to see the looks on their faces when it was unveiled was amazing. It’s great to see youth get excited about something, and we are happy to help them realize how cool STEAM and STEM can be.”

Along with the new technology, youth are also able to learn drawing techniques and prepare presentations with iPads. Paired with the arts side of things is the Lighthouse Project, a recording studio that allows teens to explore and create, connect with peers and access cutting-edge media and music technology.

Lighthouse clubs include an Audio Arts Club that includes instruction on beat production, songwriting, deejaying, podcasting and rap and poetry, and a Visual Arts Club that includes instruction on Photoshop, YouTubing, creating videos, comics and anime, photography and drawing and painting.

“We have space for real conversations and shout outs, and ask the students where they’re at the beginning of every session,” Ruiz says of the Lighthouse Project. “At the beginning of the year, we ask them what they’d like to dive into and that steers the projects for the school year. We recently experimented with our first interdisciplinary project this past spring that involved every student to record, create an animation, and create a beat for their spoken word recording.”

Ruiz adds she is encouraged by the new space and looks forward to inspiring younger generations to gain more hands-on learning from the technology available to them.

“This approach can be interpreted in many different ways, and for me it encourages questioning, trying, playing, messing up and finding beauty in what’s working and revising and trying again if something isn’t working,” she says. “I see the Youth Learning Center as the keystone for all our programs currently within the Homewood-Brushton YMCA.”

Top Header Image Photo Credit: Prototyping Larimer Stories by artist John Peña, photo by OPA