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Ep. 46: Jennifer Cairns of The Sarah Heinz House

Interview by Jonathan Kersting

Summer of 50 PGH Tech Stories

Jennifer Cairns is Executive Director of the Sarah Heinz House on Pittsburgh's North Side. Learn how it helps students across across the spectrum from learning to exercise to getting a good meal. The COVID-19 Pandemic couldn't stop the great work of the Sarah Heinz House either!! Summer of 50 PGH Tech Stories is powered by Comcast!




It's one hundred percent true one of the best things about Pittsburgh is its collection, its community of nonprofits and organizations that are here to help, whether there's a pandemic or not. And we've been talking to quite a few of them through our 50 Summer Stories of Pittsburgh Tech. And today we have the Sarah Heinz House. We're talking to Jennifer Cairns, who is the executive director of Sarah Heinz House. And I love telling these stories with Comcast. Like I said, this is the absolute highlight of my summer because every time I hit the record button here on zoom, I'm just talking to the most amazing people. And I'm so excited to talk to you today, Jennifer about all the great work that you're doing with Sarah Heinz house is doing. It's making such a difference in such a positive impact here in Pittsburgh, I cannot wait to learn more. I cannot wait for our listeners and our viewers to learn more. So welcome to the show today. Thanks for being with me.

Thanks for having me, Jonathan. Hello to everybody else.

Very cool. So quickly. What's your background real fast? Who is Jennifer Cairns?

That's an interesting question. I'm just me, right? I'm a person who's just committed to kids and is getting to live out her dream at Sarah Hines house but it doesn't feel like work any day. But some would tell you that I'm a reformed lawyer. For 12 years before I jumped ship to really follow my, my avocation my vocation. Very cool. What was it that made you decide I'm going to leave the world of law and do something like work for this airlines house?

All of my volunteerism and board service was around organizations that either advanced women or families and so it really has spoken to me all my life being someone who grew up with a single mom with two siblings and a deadbeat dad in the equation. No good. I always look to to empower you to realize that they could be anything that they wanted to be and how to strengthen the women who are often sharing a lion's share that load in raising up the next generation. So, this was just an opportunity to bring this passion and hard, hard feelings together.

I love it. That is, that's an amazing story on its own right there as far as that is so cool. And we all know the Heinz name here in Pittsburgh, of course, I just had some Heinz ketchup on my sweet potato, tater tots at lunch today. And maybe people don't know exactly what the Sarah HEinz House is all about. Give us a quick little nickel tour of all the great work Sarah Heinz House is up to.

Yeah, thank you for that. I love talking about Sarah Heinz House if I had a dime for every time someone passed us on Route 28 and was like I didn't know that you did. I would never have fundraised again. So if you pass by just throw a dime out the window. But I like to say that there are high cells in the business of helping kids build great futures. And we do that and have been doing that for the last 120 years. by exposing us that long. Yeah. We're really invested in exposing youth aged three to 18 to meaningful mentor relationships and then engaging them in our school time activities that build character that encourage physical and emotional wellness, that advanced creativity, and that most importantly, develop workforce ready skills so that they're ready to springboard out of their highest self, into the community. That's what it's all about being able to give people that headstart given that extra support they need given that foundation. Just so important. Any idea how many students have kind of come through the doors over the years, it has to be just so many people that have been positively impacted by the Sarah Heinzs House?

Yeah, I mean, it's 10s of thousands, we serve nearly 1200 youth a year over my last seven years at Sarah Heinz House.

So you must have a lot of joy on your face every day when you know that like what you're doing is playing such an active, you know, just positive role in so many these kids lives and really giving them that extra step that they need. I mean, How's that feel every day when you're coming to work? And then you leave work? And like you said, Did you feel like we're gonna feel like you're just working at your life's mission? Right?

Yeah, I mean, you, you have your challenging days, and you certainly lack the lack of resources that a large law firm did. But you know, you know, your, what you're fighting for is meaningful. And if ever, I'm having one of those challenging days, and you know, I nearly walk out my office door and a smiling kid running by me in the hallway is that boost of energy and injection to know like, this is this is worth, you know, nose to the grindstone, figure it out. And it's amazing to see a place where, you know, kids can literally and figuratively unload the backpack. Yeah, whatever they're carrying in their day, the minute they walk through our doors, you know, they're seeing friends that they wouldn't normally see in a school setting or in their neighborhood. They're engaging with our staff and other adult volunteers who are those mentors and solid reinforcements in their lives just they run into the building. You can't help but be filled with I believe It's definitely a good it's got to be one of the highlights of their day that is absolutely. Or maybe give us a little overview of like, what are some of the key programs that you guys are running and everything like that. And there's a lot of stuff around steam and stuff like that, like, what's happened in there?

Yeah, so we take a holistic approach that found and I like to say we make them eat their vegetables, right? So if you're someone who likes steam, yeah, but you shy away from physical activity, you know, living a healthy physical and emotional life is equally as important. So we will engage you in something on our healthy choices side of our curriculum the same way if you are a young kid like me, who just really loves to be active, I like to school but when school was done, it needed to be done. They would say to young Jennifer, no, no, no, you got to pick something over here that's going to enrich you and guess what we slip in the learning through the fun because this is not going to feel like school for you. So whether that is through a dance class, a robotics class, a digital arts class, a sustainable design class, or we have Life Skills classes for all of our age groups, so that they can develop those social emotional skills that are just so vital. You know, it's amazing that they have gone from being viewed as soft skills to now essential skills. And we really feel that that's a vital narrative change, as I've been talking about so much with people is the fact that it's, it's, it's learning, but they don't know the learning is because you're engaging in a creative way you're getting into their passions and their interests. And so I just think it's just so powerful that that's how like kids now are learning and progressing. It's not just like, you're coming here to learn these five things. And then you'll get out of here. It's like no, like, you're doing something that you really want to do.

And the beautiful thing is that it's also changing in the in the school setting. You know, the school setting is becoming more like after school where it is collaborative team based learning, project based learning, which is what we've been doing for so long and engages the student in a different way and engages the mind in a different way. You know, I always say we're a place where kids can can try it. Fail safely and I like to learn at a young age that you don't grow up fearful you learn that, you know, this is an opportunity in a safe environment to spread your wings, try something new. Whether that's getting up in front of a room and public speaking or whether that's engaging in a in a sports league, because you don't feel like you're necessarily the most athletic or whether it's trying something in STEM because you've been told that you're not good at science and math. So this could not possibly be a path for you yet, we put you in front of one of our mean bot robots and intuitive and dark and the light goes on. And that's a fabulous moment to witness.

Oh, that's got to be just worth its weight in gold right there. And you see some some some students feel like they weren't supposed to be doing something. And they're introduced to it in a different way. And all of a sudden, they catch on to it and they become really great at it and it gets their passion go and that's just so amazing.

Yeah, anytime that we can help a child ignite their passion, or at least just like that little spark, yeah. And then they can pursue it and it Even if it just becomes a hobby and not a career path, it's something else that is that niche that they would have not, you know, an opportunity that they may not have otherwise been exposed to. And that's that's what we're all about.

Definitely. So how do the students get engaged with the Sarah Hines house? Like how do they how they link up and become a part of this?

Yeah, so we, we stay there, there are no restrictions for hanging out with us. So there we serve kids from over 100 zip codes in the city in over 100 schools in the city. So although we're located on the north side, that is by no means a barrier to entry and we serve kids from all backgrounds and socio economic classes. And so really, I like to say we're a salad bowl and that's part of our kids, you're mixing from different neighborhoods and schools and backgrounds and races and cultures and socio economic yet all being celebrated for the uniqueness that they bring to the table and you know, it's it's really special so they can find out about us on our website, okay. We work a lot with with school districts to share our information. And you know, we're relatively inexpensive to join and cost $25 a year to be a member in our after school program, just 25 bucks $25 a year for our core programming plus a free meal. And then if you wanted to take offshoot classes like dance or robotics, there are small nominal fees for that too, but they're there 10 weeks of dance for maybe $45.

Wow, that's a deal. I think I want to take some dance class.

Hopefully ayou have better moves than me because I can maybe do the robot a little bit but not the lawnmower.

Even better yet, but might be a good dance couples! Tell me how are you guys working with Pittsburgh public schools these days.

The PPS is our largest feeder of students into our after school programs. And so obviously, when the shutdown happened, they were the largest group of kids that we were in families that we were trying to stay in touch with. And so we're always looking to be partners with our districts, whether it's PPS Otherwise on how to best the wraparound supports for the child and in the school setting that looks like making sure that they're, you know, valuing, learning and valuing the reason to attend school and not missing and, and providing those academic or enrichment supports that schools can't afford to, to carry anymore. But in this COVID climate, it really means how do we support teachers in this environment? And how do we support students that had been displaced from classrooms, and that was whether it was in a hybrid model of where some kids are going to be in the classroom and some kids are going to be virtually annoying, or as we find out the reality for PBS right now are all the students are gonna be virtually learning for the first nine weeks?

Exactly, exactly. So tell me about the whole COVID thing. I know you guys have been providing so many services through COVID no matter what, which is why we love telling these stories. It's like I keep saying COVID began for this user stepping up and they're making they're getting creative and now they're getting their services. out there, but they're making sure it happens because they know the need is even better now, I think the nonprofit community has been incredibly innovative and incredibly nimble and doing it with so few resources to step up, I mean, there's the collaborative nature is not just within Sarah hospitals, but it's within the non profit community as a whole in Pittsburgh. And so what that means for us in the immediate term is that we will be serving as a Community Learning Hub where PPS students will be coming to Sarah hind cells during the day from nine to two as a structured and supporting learning environment as they go through their synchronous school day. Okay, it's getting so complicated. It is, but they'll get they'll get lunch there and during their during their school breaks, or their class breaks, we'll be able to get them up and moving in our gyms and engaging them in enrichment activities. But back in the spring when COVID felt new, back, we like everybody else tried to say okay, How do we stay in touch with our kids engage with their kids engage their families. And what that meant for us is that we delivered nearly 200 hours of virtual programming to our kids. Some of that was live instruction and some of it was that was pre recorded because of safety issues and compliance issues with consent forms and things. But you know, we were there for our students from March through May engaging three times a week in a menu of classes. One was a life skills class. One was the healthy choices class, whether that was learning how to make a healthy snack or getting out and doing physical fitness, and then a stem class and then a couple of our live quiet classes. We're engaged in what we call e textiles, which is really cool concept. we embed electronics into jewelry or into clothing. And then we did a partnership with pa cyber school on our Sustainable Design program. To build that houses that we set. The bat house this home, taught them all About the value of bats and then taught them all about how to sustainably design bat houses, and engineer them through that class. So a lot of exciting stuff. We also made sure our kids and families basic needs are met. So we were delivering over 10,000 meals and stacks between March and June. And also, we serve senior citizens during the day when our kids are in the building normally, oh, my goodness is senior citizens as well.

My goodness, I had no idea.

Yeah, so you know, they're the most at risk population so there was no way of thinking about how to bring them back into the building safely but it was they how do we engage you both for your own socialization to avoid the isolation that was so prevalent in that population but also to keep them up and moving and so we did live physical fitness instructions with them times a week and we're still doing that because not many gyms are open to that population for good for good reason.

Right, right. Right. Wow, you guys are just hitting on So that's pretty amazing. If people like want to be able to do you need, is there any any flight volunteers and help and so forth? Is there a way people can be helpful to this era hotels?

Absolutely. I mean, we before COVID relied heavily on volunteers to maintain our to maintain our over hundred weekly programs that we offered. And now, as we open in a in a modified structure as everybody else and in a reduced capacity structure, it means that we need more is paid staff but also volunteer staff to help break up those days to do it safely. Our volunteers, we want them to commit to one age group this year as opposed to them. Some of them spent six days a week with us. And now we have to say sorry, we can't do that this year. So that means I've got to find for the replacements.

Oh my goodness.

But you can learn how to volunteer with us on our volunteer page on our website, which is their hind Our phone number is also available to answer questions which are and I'd be happy to share my email address when this goes out. So folks, if they wanted to reach out or have any questions they could do so.

Oh, fantastic. I'm so glad to hear that. We'll put that in the liner notes of this as well to such an exciting story. So glad I got to talk with you today. I mean, the work you guys are doing is it's definitely inspirational. And it's great that you guys are out there doing what you're doing. Despite the pain kavik still making such a positive impact on the community and the kids. I just love it. So cool talking to Jennifer.

Well, I appreciate the opportunity. You know, anytime that we can celebrate our kids and celebrate the work that the nonprofit community is doing is an opportunity. Wilson

Absolutely. Jennifer karns, the executive director at Sarah Heinz house hanging out with me, Jonathan Kersting, from the Pittsburgh tech Council, and of course Comcast making this series of stories possible all summer long. I can't thank you enough. Jennifer, your work and your team's work is absolutely fantastic.

Well, thank you for Comcast for being such wonderful partners during this time and making sure kids Go, don't go without digital access, because it's vitally needed.

It's been a huge thing and actually we prefer Comcast has stepped up like nobody else when it comes to ensuring that the kids have the connections they can get to school and learn. It's it's been amazing to see how it took right off and they they swoop right in there and made some stuff happen.

And it's been a real stress reliever for parents. I mean, the anxiety that the parents were caring about wanting their kids to have the tools that they need so we can make Comcast enough for really stepping up big time for families.

Great. Thanks so much for talking to you today. Appreciate it.

So much.

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