When Smith’s family first came to the neighborhood in 1980, his father was a pastor at Hazelwood’s Keystone Church and Smith was studying to become a banker. Now, 40 years later, Smith is a pastor in the same church his father once led, changing his career path from an investment banker to an advocate for children and community development.
Smith, the CEO and founder of Center of Life, founded the nonprofit in 2001, when he says there were needs in the community that were not being met. The organization functions as many different resources for the community in Hazelwood, focusing on empowering people, children, and families through music, arts, and education.
“Our main purpose is to provide families with the tools, resources, and education necessary to become strong and to make their community [strong],” says Smith. “The best people to make a community strong are the people in the community."
Like many of Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods, Hazelwood has suffered significant population loss, disinvestment, and lack of homeownership since the decline of the steel industry in Pittsburgh. But in recent years, the neighborhood has been experiencing revitalization thanks to organizations like Center of Life.
“Our organization has always focused on people. Economics are a part of people. Our philosophy of empowerment is we want to give people a fish, and we hope they taste it and want more,” Smith says. “But then, we want to teach them how to fish so they can feed themselves and their families and possibly someone else’s family. We want to teach them how to own the pond that they’re fishing in.”
Smith emphasizes the importance of educating the community about wealth building so that, eventually, people can own property, then provide job opportunities to others, and ultimately own their own economy.
“The first value we have is about serving people. Doesn’t matter whether it’s community or economic development, or whether it's housing, whether it’s jobs or education, it’s all about people,” says Smith. “We have to make sure we get people into a place of success.”
The easiest way Smith says the public can help Center of Life and the community they serve is by donating their time to educate and mentor the young students who participate in the multitude of programs Center of Life offers.
Even during the pandemic, all of the organization’s programs are free, accessible to everybody, and held every day. Smith says there are kids who come from all over the Pittsburgh area to participate in offerings like their music program.
“For me, the success litmus test is when parents get involved,” Smith says. “I think whenever you’re a parent and you put your kids in a program, that’s a success for me because they trust us to work with their children. They trust us to take them to another level.”
He expresses that Center of Life’s philosophy regarding kids is to simply nurture their natural talents and then connect them to opportunity.
“Then we take that opportunity and connect it to education because their natural ability needs to be a skill, and education helps that natural ability become a skill,” Smith says. “Then we take that and we connect it to career, so that everything they’ve been learning as they were growing up, they don’t have to see that as some pie in the sky, they can see it as reality.”
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the priorities of Center of Life have had to adjust just like the rest of the nonprofit world.
When Center of Life first understood the seriousness of the pandemic in March, the Greater Hazelwood Community Collaborative, a service-based group that Center of Life is a part of, began to pull resources together. When the state was shut down on March 16, Center of Life began delivering food to families in need on the same day.
Smith says they provide counseling for youth and families, resource guides, and trips to doctors’ offices, aiming to keep families off the streets, while helping them get access to food and medicine.
“Our priorities really haven't changed in the standpoint of helping the community, but what we do and what we’re spending more time doing now has been some of these things,” Smith says. “Even though we’re still teaching. We still have our programs for kids, many of them are virtual right now.”
Overall, he reiterated the importance of the people working at Center of Life.
“I can’t tell you how valuable and how powerful they are. They’re mostly young people, but they have been doing outstanding job. They’re just a stellar staff, and they will do anything to serve people,” Smith says. “They’ve embraced the value that everything is about people, from our outcomes and evaluations manager, to the person who delivers food, to the person who teaches music. They all hold that value. They have loved Hazelwood as much as I have loved Hazelwood.”
Center of Life