Table Magazine Forging Forward is a series of eight articles about our region’s recovery and resiliency in the time of COVID, presented with the generous support of the Pittsburgh Foundation.
How do you get there?
Taking three buses during a pandemic may not be the most optimal solution and you don’t have the ability to ask your employer for an entire day off for “personal reasons.” Who would you turn to?
This situation may seem extreme, but is more common that many of us realize. All over the greater Pittsburgh region, thousands of our friends and neighbors lack personal transportation or live near a bus route. Those that do may not be able to afford regular bus passes and have to condense their trips to make their dollars stretch. Simple tasks like picking up groceries or prescriptions, visiting doctors or applying for jobs are out of reach for many.
However, organizations like Heritage Community Initiatives, based in Braddock, Pa, are working hard to support our local communities through education, nutrition and transportation support. Now in its 37th year, Heritage is a cornerstone of service, continuing to maintain its positive impact in more than 40 communities around Allegheny County.
“I always say this and mean it. It is a privilege to do what we do,” said Paula McWilliams, president and CEO. Recognizing that no one issue exists in a silo, it was important that Heritage addressed multiple concerns impacting families and individuals.
But perhaps the most unique part of Heritage Community Initiatives is its transportation program, serving 15 communities east of the City of Pittsburgh. For only 25 cents a ride, Heritage Community Transportation is helping our neighbors in need get where they need to go.
In February, HCT celebrated its 20th anniversary, having positioned itself as the only human services non-profit in Pennsylvania designated to being a provider of public transportation. HCT provides three fixed routes that traverse 16 different communities with its 14-person vans. Forty-two percent of their riders -- 70 percent of which earn less than 20 thousand dollars a year in household income -- connect into the Port Authority through HCT, bridging gaps between communities.
“It’s hard to remember a pre-pandemic world,” said McWilliams. “We never shut down during the pandemic because of the essential services we provide. Our transportation took people to their essential jobs, including many who work in healthcare institutions,” she added. HCT never changed the routes or schedules, and there were riders at every single one of its stops every day.
“I’m just so grateful for them,” said one of its riders, who preferred to remain anonymous. An employee of Walmart, he would call Heritage daily to make sure the vans were running during the red phase of COVID-19, knowing a 40-minute walk would have been his only other option.
“Our riders have had to continue to go to work. We are grateful for them and we have increased our social distancing and safety measures to help keep both riders and our drivers safe,” said McWilliams. Due to the pandemic, they have reduced the number of riders in each van, having to make space for social distancing.
“This is significant,” she said. “Transportation is expensive. We are thankful for the PennDot grant and grateful to Allegheny County for their support. Without that, we couldn’t operate and serve our 8,000 riders a month,” McWilliams said. The organization is currently looking to add more vans over the next six months to help make up for the loss of seats, which has left passengers on the side of the road.
“People underestimate the importance of transit in communities whether you are experiencing a public health crisis or not,” said Laura Kelley, who has been the director of business development at Heritage for 10 years. “This pandemic has highlighted the importance of that access and how the key to all of this is equity.”
Kelley stresses that all individuals should not only have the opportunity to participate in life-affirming events, but how transportation is linked to childcare and employment, helping to make communities thrive.
Community members agree. “Being able to take Heritage’s transportation to Walmart helps me so much. I can do my one-stop shopping which makes staying at home bearable,” said a senior who lives in the Brentmoor Apartments in Wilkins Township. Added a rider from Wall, Pa: “I am a mother of three small children and live where there aren’t any buses. I am so pleased that Heritage continues as usual so that I can keep my job at McDonald’s in Monroeville.”
Transportation is not only a part of life but provides opportunities for independence and dignity. Access to transportation is intricately entwined with education and nutrition, and Heritage recognizes these intersections, working to provide services that strengthen families, communities and individuals through the organization’s programming.
But they can’t do it alone.
“We’ve had the privilege of staying open and serving during these challenging times, while putting in place safety and health protocols that we can be proud of,” said McWilliams. “But the cost associated with this is significant,” she added. It costs the organization an additional $108,000 to have fully qualified personnel on staff to support teachers during this time.
“We know it’s an age-old request to ask for support to keep our funding going. But, we are small and mighty. We are committed to serving our communities. If people are moved to make a contribution, I know that they will see a measurable return on their investment. We are changing lives, feeding children, offsetting education costs to families and keeping communities connected,” said McWilliams.
We truly can go farther, together.
To donate to Heritage Community Transportation and the Heritage Community Initiatives, click here.
STORY BY NATALIE BENCIVENGA