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Wilkinsburg Pastor Leads Community Group Dedicated To Ending Youth Violence

Janet Hellner-Burris
Sanctuary Project
Sanctuary Project volunteers clear overgrown vegetation on Franklin Avenue in Wilkinsburg in July of 2016 as part of Operation Light on Franklin.

On a stormy Thursday in Wilkinsburg, Janet Hellner-Burris stepped out of the rain on Wallace Avenue and into the doors of the Christian Church of Wilkinsburg, where she's served as a pastor since 1990. 

Once inside, Hellner-Burris began climbing the staircase, gesturing upwards a flight to an open door that leads into a small gymnasium with a hardwood floor.

"[Its] one of the few that's available to the youth of the community," said Hellner-Burris. "Every Saturday, this place is full with kids playing." 

In her capacity as pastor, Hellner-Burris, known to most in the community simply as "Pastor Janet," has long been involved with service work in Wilkinsburg helping to run after school programs and basketball leagues. Unfortunately, she's also borne witness to her fair share of violence in the borough, just east of the Pittsburgh's city limits. It was an especially turbulent span about eight years ago that would lead her to take on a new role.

"In August and September of 2010, there were four young people shot and killed in this community within a span of 30 days," said Hellner-Burris.  "And though we had seen random shootings, and each one of those of course tragic in its own way, we were really shocked by having four in such a short span of time."

In the following days, Wilkinsburg's leadership gathered the borough's ministers, saying they needed their help to counter youth violence. A few months later, the Sanctuary Project was formed, with Hellner-Burris as president. 

"Some of us are ministers, others are from social service agencies, others are just people who are worried about the youth of the community," said Hellner-Burris.

Credit Joaquin Gonzalez / 90.5 WESA
Janet Hellner-Burris on the steps of the Christian Church of Wilkinsburg on Wallace Avenue.

All work on a volunteer basis. The Sanctuary Project combines its members' and partners' resources to run programs for youth in the community, including a talent show for the arts, a block party and a summer internship program. In the past, they have also organized a gun buyback and facilitated conversations between the borough's police officers and residents.

Stephon Byrd grew up in Wilkinsburg and through the Sanctuary Project, he participated in an internship in 2015 with Rebuilding Together Pittsburgh, a housing rehabilitation non-profit, where he learned brick masonry and carpentry. 

Byrd, 20, is now a student at Alabama State University studying business and marketing and said he uses those skills on jobs during the summer that help him pay for school. He said once he graduates, he would like to come back to Pittsburgh to begin his career and that he plans on starting to give back to his community right away.

"[Helping] youth get summer jobs and things like that. [The Sanctuary Project] had a big impact on my life," said Byrd.

Another aspect of the Sanctuary Project is their community chaplain program. The chaplains, including Hellner-Burris, are a group of specially trained ministers who are on call to respond to critical incidents in the community, providing comfort and support to families and neighbors.

John Thompson, who served as Wilkinsburg's mayor from 2006 until the end of last year, said that the chaplains are ready to step in and help 24 hours a day, 7 days a week when something bad happens.

"It doesn't necessarily have to be a violent act. Sometimes there's a fire...anything that's kind of major, where we need a pastor there," said Thompson.

For example, Thompson said the chaplains were quick to respond to a 2016 Franklin Avenue shooting that left six people dead, and have continued to provide support in that area since then.

That same year, the Sanctuary Project initiated Operation Light on Franklin, a months-long project to revitalize the block where, among other efforts, volunteers boarded up abandoned houses, cut down overgrown vegetation and repaired concrete steps and railings.

Hellner-Burris said that she is optimistic about Wilkinsburg's future, but that the Sanctuary Project's work is far from done. Last month, there was a shooting in the community on Laketon Road that left one woman dead. 

"That question is always before us: 'what more can we do?'" said Hellner-Burris.