In the late 1990s, Kristee Cammack was taking classes at Slippery Rock University. For one course, she had to write a paper on what she’d like to change in society. She decided to visit a homeless shelter.
“So, I was just like, ‘Oh, I’ll just go to a homeless shelter and write my paper, and it’ll be done with,’" Cammack said. "But actually, when I got there, what happened -- they don’t service families. So that’s how I came up with the idea of a homeless shelter for families.
"I grew up in a close knit family, and to me, it was just heartbreaking that they didn’t want husbands and wives to stay together, and the kids also couldn’t stay at the homeless shelter," she said.
In the years afterward, Cammack went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Point Park University, but her dream of helping the homeless never left her. In 2012, she decided to make the leap.
Cammack found a former school annex in Allentown that - like many buildings in the Hilltop neighborhood - had been left vacant for years. She’d been fundraising for years by selling fireworks around the Fourth of July, and, in February 2013, she bought the annex for $40,000 and founded the nonprofit community center "A Giving Heart."
Then came the hard, expensive work of rehabilitating the building, even as programs like a soup kitchen and an after-school program got underway. The biggest hurdle was refurbishing the full-size basketball court, which had sustained massive water damage.
“What actually happened -- the heating system is behind the bleachers, and the one side, the pipes burst because I’m guessing that they didn’t drain the water," Cammack explained. "The floor was warped -- people can’t see, but it was about this high off the floor that the wood was lifted -- so we had to take the gym floor up.”
It was a community effort, with everyone from the parents of the after-school group to the Rivers Casino’s volunteer corps, and even the American Basketball Association’s Steel City Yellow Jackets lent a hand. Now, the Yellow Jackets play their home games there.
Cammack said A Giving Heart serves free dinners to about 60 children each Monday through Thursday during the school year, and free lunches in the summertime. About two dozen of those children are also in the after-school program, meaning they get free tutoring and field trips, from Pitt football games to shows at the Byham Theater and excursions with Venture Outdoors.
“From having children and going through different experiences, that’s where the holistic approach came from with the community center, to do the after-school program and make sure the kids eat," Cammack said.
A Giving Heart also hosts a food pantry every other Friday, run by Ruth Schran of the St. John Vianney Parish of the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese.
“This is truly a family venture for [Cammack]," Schran said. "Her whole family is involved here, from her youngest children all the way to her mother and father. They’ve all been here.”
Cammack, who works for a logistics company, laughed off the idea that she’s working too hard.
“Just gotta get it done. It’s for the love of the kids," she said. "We don’t get paid to work here, and so, what we do, we come and work with the kids just to help them, and then Friday, Saturday, Sunday, I work a full-time job.”
Cammack says she still has plans to expand A Giving Heart’s services to include a family homeless shelter.