Home to an extensive array of nonprofits, foundations, and charities, Pittsburgh has been one of the country’s major philanthropic centers for over a century. After all, it was Andrew Carnegie who said, “Wealth is not to feed our egos but to feed the hungry and to help people help themselves.”

    The wonderful people who inhabit our neighborhoods are quick to lend a hand when they see someone in need, but what happens when people are unaware that a particular need exists? That’s where someone like Dr. Joseph Lagana, founder of the Homeless Children’s Education Fund, comes in.

    Joe Lagana

    Joe Lagana

    A retired teacher and former executive director of the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, Joe has dedicated himself to serving the needs of children who are underserved, underrepresented, and homeless. Though HCEF is now headquartered in the Hill District, Joe has long-standing connections with business owners and other members of the Strip District community.

    In the mid-1990s the neighborhood was rapidly changing, and the Strip District Businessmen’s Association wanted to develop a plan to uphold the character and culture of the Strip while bringing it into the 21st century. Joe was an integral part of what would become Neighbors in the Strip (now Strip District Neighbors), a community organization that promotes economic development and high quality of life while preserving the personality, integrity, and character of the Strip.

    “Joe Lagana retired as executive director of the Allegheny Intermediate Unit just as I arrived in Pittsburgh to head up the Senator John Heinz History Center,” says Andy Masich, president and CEO of the History Center. “A seasoned administrator, Joe offered me his services as a senior advisor and together we rallied Strip District residents and business leaders to create Neighbors in the Strip. Joe really poured himself into this effort, headquartered at the History Center. Believing he could do even more, Joe started the nonprofit Homeless Children’s Education Fund to address the needs of those kids who fell through the cracks of the education and social-service systems.”

    At a party celebrating Joe’s retirement from the Allegheny Intermediate Unit in 1999, Joe asked guests to make financial contributions toward the creation of a fund to meet the educational needs of children experiencing homelessness, and the Homeless Children’s Education Fund was born.

    “I believe that the Pittsburgh community is unique in the sense that everybody wants to help. Raising awareness is key. People want to help but they don’t know how—they need to be asked and pointed in the right direction,” says Joe. “The Strip District in particular is very generous. We couldn’t have done it without the relationships we formed with members of this community. The people who have supported us have grassroots insights, and their practical knowledge helped me form the program. Entrepreneurs are courageous high-risk takers who understand where niches are and how to fill them. There’s so much need, and I am grateful for the practical insights they bring.”

    Buncher Company president and CEO Tom Balestrieri has known Joe Lagana for more than 20 years. “We met when he headed up the Allegheny Intermediate Unit and they were seeking office space. They became a tenant of ours, and a relationship was born,” says Tom. “Once Neighbors in the Strip was stabilized, Joe turned his energies to his true passion and calling—working to assist homeless children. His focus was on getting these children educated, believing that was their best chance to break the cycle of poverty.” Mr. Balestrieri helped the Homeless Children’s Education Fund find a new headquarters when they outgrew their office in the Heinz History Center, and later when they moved from the Produce Terminal Building.

    “Joe has been a godsend to so many youths over the past 20 years, and we have been pleased to support him and HCEF along the way in any way we could. He’s a good man and the organization he founded has left an indelible mark on so many people.”

    The mission of the Homeless Children’s Education Fund is to advance the education of children and youth experiencing homelessness, guiding them to be productive, empowered citizens. The extent and effects of child homelessness are startling. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, in the 2015-16 school year 3,269 children and youth in Allegheny County were identified as experiencing homelessness.

    “These are invisible populations. Kids don’t walk around with a t-shirt that reads, ‘I’m homeless,’ ” Joe says.

    “Part of our program is teaching educators and administrators to look for the warning signs of homelessness. These students are beautiful young people, and with a little encouragement they can do amazing things for themselves, their communities, and those of us who serve them.”

    From its inception, HCEF has operated with the belief that community collaboration is essential to help children and youth overcome the obstacles of homelessness, develop resilience, and reach their full potential. Strip District community members have all stepped up in one way or another by contributing their time, money, space, food, transportation, and many more valuable services to advance the mission of the Homeless Children’s Education Fund.

    “These kids had no place to study in the shelters where they were living. As a teacher, I couldn’t tolerate that,” says Joe. Local businesses, foundations, and state and federal representatives and senators generously provided funding to create shelter-based learning centers with computers, educational software, libraries, and a comfortable place to work with HCEF afterschool instructors.

    Nino Sunseri

    Nino Sunseri

    Community engagement has always been a key component to the success of HCEF.  “Joe Lagana often came into Bella Notte after church at St. Stan’s,” says Nino Sunseri. “One day he told me they were having a picnic and asked if I could donate some food. I said, ‘Just tell me what you need and it’s yours.’ ”

    Jimmy and Nino’s food businesses have developed a continuing relationship with the Homeless Children’s Education Fund, donating food for events and other occasions. Nino sees the inherent value in community involvement. “These children are our future. The HCEF helps these kids get an education and an opportunity to be proud human beings. In turn, they will give back tenfold.”

    Chuck Hammel of Pitt Ohio has also been a major supporter of the Homeless Children’s Education Fund and sponsors his employees’ attendance at HCEF’s Champions for Children fundraiser at the Rivers Club each year. “We’ve been going for about 15 years,” says his executive assistant, Marilyn Bittel. “It’s a blast. Joe Lagana is the kind of person who inspires you to want to get out there and do great things.”

    The HCEF-inspired “Shelter” exhibit at Contemporary Craft in the Strip (through Feb. 17, 2018).

    The HCEF-inspired “Shelter” exhibit at Contemporary Craft in the Strip (through Feb. 17, 2018).

    It’s not just business owners who have partnered with the Homeless Children’s Education Fund. Janet McCall, executive director of Contemporary Craft in the Strip, has worked closely with Joe Lagana and HCEF for many years.

    At Contemporary Craft, artists work with at-risk, homeless children and families to create Dreaming Pillows, beautifully embellished painted fabric pillows on which young artists draw their dreams. The Dreaming Pillow Project provides a tangible way for these at-risk youth to express hope for their future, and fosters communication and personal growth while enhancing visual literacy skills.

    Contemporary Craft also looked to HCEF for guidance when putting together the current exhibition in their Main Gallery. “Shelter: Crafting a Safe Home” provides a forum for craft artists’ responses to issues of shelter—global and local, public and private—and aims to create awareness and open dialogue around this urgent social issue. Infused with personal stories and perspectives, “Shelter” demonstrates that art is a vehicle for open communication, healing, and compassion.

    “Looking through the lens of art raises awareness of many social problems,” says Janet McCall. “By partnering with HCEF we’ve learned more about the root causes of homelessness, especially in children. Addressing these causes can help us find ways to reduce the problem. Sharing stories through art also helps to lessen the stigma associated with homelessness.”

    HCEF is harnessing the power of technology with a new app called bigburgh.com, which connects the homeless with services such as medical care, food, shelter, and more. “About 60 percent of kids on the street have smartphones,” says Joe. “If we can teach them to use this app they can help other children find services as well.” Pittsburgh Police officers are already using the app to connect people with services, and the City of Pittsburgh will support it beyond the pilot stage in 2018.

    “The Homeless Children’s Education Fund not only provides services; it helps people connect their hearts to service,” says Joe. Once you come face-to-face with a homeless child, it changes your life.”

    Aleita Hermanowski is a freelance writer and editor who grew up working in a Strip District family business. She enjoys exploring the rich history of Pittsburgh and all that Western Pennsylvania has to offer. Visit her website at aleitahermanowski.com.