Michael Stanton was named June’s Champion of Greater Pittsburgh by the Dignity and Respect Campaign, which honors those “that embrace, embody, and demonstrate the values of dignity and respect.” He was honored for his work as co-founder and executive director with Open Hand Ministries.
Founded in 2007, the group is comprised of four churches in the Garfield and East Liberty neighborhoods including East Liberty Presbyterian Church, East Minister Presbyterian Church, Valley View Presbyterian Church and Open Door Presbyterian Church.
“The purpose of the ministry is to promote justice in our communities – a positive way of saying ‘responding to the social injustices that plague our communities and our society,’ particularly the issues of racism and genderism,” Stanton said.
Stanton said Open Hand Ministries seeks to empower low-income families by helping them get on their feet financially and become homeowners. Wealth-building is just as meaningful as increasing one’s income, he said.
“They’re not just making more money, but they’re building their assets," he said. "This is wealth that can be passed on, not only to their children but their children’s children and subsequent generations.”
Open Hand works to educate families on how to improve their budgeting, saving and investing skills through outside counseling and financial management organizations. The eventual goal is to help them build their credit so that they can take out a mortgage on a home.
“Once we are able to match the property to a homeowner that is ready, we then change our hats and then function as general contractors and rehabilitate the properties on their behalf,” Stanton said.
They have volunteers and partnerships with organizations like the Bartko Foundation and the Heinz Endowments that allow the ministry to cost-effectively renovate abandoned properties and make them livable for families.
On average, each home costs approximately $140,000 to $180,000, according to Stanton. After renovations, Open Hand sets families up with a mortgage of 15 to 20 percent of their income, and if necessary, pays the rest of it off through funds raised locally or from the partnering organizations.
Eleven families, and an upcoming twelfth, have received this help since the organization was established. The formal relationship lasts 12 to 18 months with occasional check-ins, and many families continue their involvement well past that, Stanton said, sometimes helping other families in similar situations.
The Dignity and Respect Campaign’s values are crucial to Open Hand Ministries' social justice mission, Stanton said. Though the main goal is to set folks up with homes, the larger objective is to build relationships of mutual respect between these families in need and their neighbors, some of whom also volunteer in Garfield and East Liberty.
“The beautiful people in our neighborhood are as equally meriting [of] dignity and respect as anyone else,” he said.