Micro grants start to make big improvement in Pittsburgh neighborhoods | TribLIVE.com
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Cynthia Levy-Mendoza walks along a new trail in what used to be an overgrown and vacant lot in her Observatory Hill neighborhood, Friday, June19, 2015. The mother of three has been working to build a network of information, support and friendship through her blog BrownMamas.com. Levy-Mendoza is transforming a vacant lot in Observatory Hill into a community garden.

As Cynthia Levy-Mendoza walks through the vacant, overgrown corner lot in her Observatory Hill neighborhood, she focuses on its potential.

A neighborhood vegetable garden could thrive in the sunny stretch along the lot’s far edge, a path could wind through the lot for dog walkers and a bench near the sidewalk could make waiting for the bus more comfortable, she said.

With grants from the Sprout Fund and Growth Through Energy and Community Health, Levy-Mendoza, 32, a ReClaim the Northside Ambassador, is working to realize her vision.

“It doesn’t make sense to have this much blight in a neighborhood like Observatory Hill,” she said. “If we can make something nice, why not make it nice?”

There are 5,405 vacant lots in the North Side, said James Snow, project manager at GTECH, an East Liberty nonprofit. GTECH’s ReClaim the Northside initiative works with communities, providing ambassadors like Levy-Mendoza with training, education and a $3,000 micro grant as they acquire and design their lots, he said.

More than just making a space neighbors can enjoy, Levy-Mendoza said she plans to host Pittsburgh Brown Mamas’ Mastering Motherhood Workshop Series there July 25 and Aug. 22.

Levy-Mendoza founded Pittsburgh Brown Mamas last year as a parenting group, providing moms of color with information and social support. She said she has realized providing mothers with access to information helps build a foundation for confident parenting.

“In our group, I’ve seen the mamas with stable home lives and families really thrive,” she said.

The workshops will teach mothers a variety of skills, including sewing, couponing, meal planning, family finance and gardening, she said.

Levy-Mendoza said she plans to have the front section of the lot cleared and ready for the workshop in July, and the rest of the lot spruced up by the end of the summer.

She and her family have been working in the lot since the end of May, whacking overgrown weeds and clearing more than 30 bags of trash. She said she’s considering creative ways to repurpose some of the debris, such as fashioning flower beds and benches from chunks of cinder block and concrete.

So far, Levy-Mendoza said she has put her grants, $1,000 from the Sprout Fund and $3,000 from GTECH, toward purchasing tools sturdy enough to chop through 20 years of overgrown brush and branches.

Levy-Mendoza said the Sprout Fund has offered “phenomenal support” for Brown Mamas and the Mastering Motherhood Workshops, providing a $1,000 grant for the workshops and offering to match donations up to $1,000 for Mastering Motherhood’s crowdfunding campaign on ioby.org.

She said she’s confident helping minority moms be present as “living, breathing examples” in their communities will build the foundation for stronger families and better communities.

“Be the best mom you can be, or be the best dad you can be, and the community will change over time,” she said.

Katherine Schaeffer is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7832 or [email protected].

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