In the basement of the Keystone Church of Hazelwood, a group of high school students practiced a hip hop dance performance, counting aloud the steps in the routine in rhythm with a backing music track.
The students are part of a program called The KRUNK Movement, just one of the initiatives run by the community group Center of Life.
Tim Smith is the pastor of Keystone Church and also the executive director of Center of Life, which he founded in 2001. He said, from the start, the inspiration for its programs came from the neighborhood’s residents.
"I wanted to address what the felt needs were in the community that’s one of the reasons why it was necessary for us to really listen," said Smith. "One of the felt needs was… there was really not a whole lot for kids to do in the community."
One of Center of Life’s earliest ventures was a youth jazz program. Smith, a musician himself, would teach the students. It started in his basement, but when it began to grow he moved it into the Keystone Church building.
“And what we did was raise money so that we could pay them to practice," said Smith.
Over time, Smith was able to build a base of foundation support, which allowed Center of Life to expand its programming and hire employees.
For example, The KRUNK Movement was started in 2004 in conjunction with the University of Pittsburgh's graduate school of public health. High school students use a variety of artistic mediums to convey messages touching on issues of public health.
“[They are] rappers, and beatmakers and singers and dancers, and videographers, photographers, and they do productions and performances and they also get paid," said Smith.
Alonzo Cotton, Jr., 18, is a senior at Taylor Allderdice High School and has been involved with The KRUNK Movement for the last three years, focusing on rapping.
"I found a sense of direction. Back then I used to think maybe I wanted to be a bus driver or a mechanic or whatever...taking music to the next level and taking that seriously. It's like, all right, I know this is something that I want to do for the rest of my life," said Cotton.
Other Center of Life initiatives include an after-school academic program, and a recreational sports program on weeknights, as well as parent engagement meetings and summer camps. The jazz program still exists too, with its own dedicated staff.
Joy Cannon oversees them all as director of programming. She started working with Center of Life as a tutor in 2013 when she was a student at Duquesne. Cannon said even as has grown much larger, Smith has still found the time to attend to everyone on an individual basis: kids, parents and even employees.
"You can speak to him very honestly and feel comfortable being open with him," said Cannon. "He makes no assumptions and is interested in listening and working with you to find what's the best solution for you the best strategy for you whatever the situation is that you might be in."
Smith said that in the future, Center of Life will continue to draw from the surrounding neighborhood for ideas to inspire programming.
"I call this the University of Hazelwood. Everything that we do through Center of Life we learned through people here in the community," said Smith.