As boys, Kevin Alton and Martel Hedge grew up a block apart on Freeland and Climax streets and met when they were 9 and 8 years old, respectively. They first worked for and got to know their Beltzhoover neighbors while delivering newspapers.
Now, 30 years later, as men, they are helping their neighborhood through the COVID-19 crisis by delivering meals to seniors who were once their customers and to kids who are the same age now as they were then.
“It’s a bond,” Mr. Hedge, 38, said of their friendship. “We’re family. Where I’m weak, he’s strong.”
On March 13, when Gov. Tom Wolf closed public schools statewide, Mr. Hedge thought immediately of children in his neighborhood who depend on the meals they receive at school. Although some city public schools were to offer free meals, how would the children get there? Hilltop neighborhood schools closed long ago, and the students usually took buses up to Mount Washington, out to Carrick or across Route 51 to Beechview.
“I know my kids’ll be straight, I know his kids’ll be straight, but what about the rest of the kids? You can’t just leave them out there in the street,” Mr. Hedge said.
Mr. Alton, 39, works as a behavior specialist at Brashear High School. “At school, we guarantee a breakfast and a lunch. So you know the kids can get two meals a day,” he said.
“Growing up around here, we know a lot of the parents of the kids,” his friend started.
“So we know which kids need certain things,” Mr. Alton finished.
The evening of the governor’s announcement, Mr. Hedge approached his friend at a banquet for the South Side Bears youth football team — which they co-founded — with an idea.
“Martel said, ‘Let’s make some food and give it out for the kids during the week,’” Mr. Alton said. “So [he] ended up going to buy some lunchmeat. We made sandwiches and lunch bags with chips and juice.”
Realizing they needed more space to work, they contacted mutual friend and neighborhood activist Nicole Stephens, who put them in touch with Cheryl Ruffin, pastor of St. Paul AME Church. She offered up the church hall in Knoxville.
“We bought some stuff, put everything together, bagged it up and told everyone to come up,” Mr. Alton said.
And they did. What started as a few dozen bag lunches has grown into several hundred, plus over 100 hot meals for seniors. Pittsburgh Public Schools now uses the church as an official distribution point for food, workbooks and school supplies. A partnership with Eat’n Park and Arnold’s Tea has helped the effort expand to other Hilltop neighborhoods.
“It’s been absolutely amazing,” Rev. Ruffin said. “It is such a blessing to the community. … Within 72 hours we were able to start this and the donations continue to come in.
“All I did was give them the space. They’re doing the heavy lifting, they’re doing the hard work and they’re doing it consistently. They’re doing it with love and compassion and as far as I’m concerned that’s how Jesus would’ve wanted it.”
A staff of 10 people — all not working as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic — prepare, cook, pack and distribute meals each day. That includes Ulna Calloway. The executive chef for Sienna Mercato in Downtown spends afternoons in the church kitchen making barbecue chicken, baked beans and other meals for seniors.
“I love this. Cooking is what keeps me calm,” he said while chopping red and orange peppers. His daughter, Kasjah, stirred a pot.
Mr. Calloway, a minister-in-training at nearby Beulah Baptist Church, grew up with Mr. Alton and Mr. Hedge. “God gave me the gift to do this and they called me up and asked if I could help. I said sure. It keeps me busy.”
Just before the coronavirus hit Allegheny County, Mr. Hedge had quit his job as a staff member at an alternative drug and alcohol inpatient facility in Uptown. That facility has reported more than a dozen coronavirus positive cases.
He and Mr. Alton load up their cars three days a week to deliver meals to seniors, many of whom they’ve known since childhood. Some were customers on their Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Pittsburgh Press newspaper routes.
“I just feel like I’m delivering papers again, but I’m delivering food,” Mr. Alton said.
a group of baseball players that are standing in front of a crowd: An Indian Air Force helicopter showers flower petals on the staff of INS Ashwini hospital in Mumbai, India, Sunday, May 3, 2020. The event was part the Armed Forces’ efforts to thank the workers, including doctors, nurses and police personnel, who have been at the forefront of the country’s battle against the COVID-19 pandemic.
Photo Gallery: Communities honor healthcare workers (USA Today)
“This is giving back. We don’t want no pat on the back. It’s just in our hearts to do it. So I get up every day like I’m going to work still and come here to get busy. It’s therapeutic.
“It’s like full circle,” Mr. Hedge said of seeing his senior neighbors. “We grown men now and they really appreciate it, callin’ us angels. … If I can help people, and help myself while helping people, I couldn’t ask for nothing better.”
Mr. Hedge said he sees the kids of the Hilltop as his kids. Like a father, he gives them regular reminders on the finer points of preventing the spread of germs and viruses: Wash your hands, wear your mask, cough in your elbow.
Surprised they’re still at it two months later, the two friends intend to keep serving as long as they are able and needed.
“This, is us,” Mr. Alton said. “This is us, taking care of us.”
Donations can be made to the St. Paul AME meal distribution through Givelify or by calling 412-431-2166.
Hey SLAYER! I’ve started a new series of posts called SLAY IT FORWARD. Each post is a submission from you of an act of kindness you have received or have witnessed that has inspired you. Let’s remind each other what’s important during this time and spread kindness… SLAY IT FORWARD.
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