The smallest kid at the Allentown Learning and Engagement Center (ALEC) can’t wait for technology time—the time when staffers break out the iPads and laptops. Trouble is, she can’t yet read the hands of the clock on the wall. So she asks. And asks.

Amber Rooke, education coordinator for the Brashear Association, which runs the storefront space in this Hilltop neighborhood, is used to the youngest kids incessantly asking. That’s why she posted a large illustration of a clock showing 2:00, right next to the actual timepiece.

And that’s why the littlest kid at ALEC, with her unruly hair and missing front tooth, sits down at 1:30 with another staff member and wades patiently through a lesson in telling time the old-fashioned way. They draw hands on paper clock faces. They write down numbers. They spend half an hour on the effort—something this little girl may soon be able to realize.

ALEC is a summertime and afterschool program offering a safe, healthy, fun and educational space for kids 6-18, in a Pittsburgh neighborhood where they don’t always have access to their own computers. It provides games, art, science and cultural projects, healthy snacks, air conditioning in the summer and homework help the rest of the year. There are organized group activities, and local artists and business people demonstrate their livelihoods. This fall will be the first year the Brashear Association has this space outside of schools for its afterschool program.

“We’ve seen kids who have had issues before, definitely growing a lot here,” says Rooke. That can be attributed in part to ALEC’s activity schedule. “A lot of students crave that consistency. I’ve definitely seen them grow and expand their horizons as a unit. It’s not as scary if everyone is doing it together.”

“I live, like, right around the corner,” says Khalif Bayah, who comes in nearly every day it is open during the summer (Monday-Thursday, noon to 4, Saturdays noon to 5). At 10, Khalif is about to enter the 5th grade at Pittsburgh Grandview K-5, and he comes here “because I can see some of my friends … and play games with my friends and get on the computer,” he explains. And during the school year, he appreciates the homework aid. “The only thing you got to do is ask,” he says.

ALEC is just one of the Hilltop neighborhood programs that a group is focusing on this summer. Teaming with Allies for Children, the Sprout Fund and CMU’s kid-voices project Hear Me, with a grant from the Hillman Foundation, the group is looking at how these agencies work and how they work together to best effect. ALEC’s goal is for kids to learn what resources are available to them in their own neighborhood and in the city, give them a constructive place to play and learn and offer their parents some help and respite.

ALEC is one big storefront, with a small stage below its front windows, three bookshelves full of kids’ books left from its year and a half as a pop-up Carnegie Library, art supplies, board games and a television for the Xbox on Saturdays. In one corner are a donated fridge and two-burner portable stovetop.

Ten kids are using the spot on a warm weekday afternoon. The older kids gather first just to talk, then quietly over a chess set with a few younger ones looking on. A pair of the smallest boys cut apples and bananas for a snack.

Its yellow walls feature a mural of the city skyline and kids’ art on the Wall of Awesome (today, it’s pirates). Parts of a papier-mache octopus-in-progress dangle on a shelf above a closet doorway.

“We’re growing pizza in the window,” Rooke says, pointing to basil and tomato plants near the window. “We sometimes have students who come in kind of hungry. We try to do healthy snacks when the kids come in because Allentown is a food desert.”

Today is also the biweekly visit of Common Ground Farms, which sets up a produce stand outside, first letting the kids choose veggies, then letting the public have some of their typical crops: from cabbage, squash and carrots to garlic, cilantro, parsley and dill. “Last time they brought the kids recipes to make beans and greens,” Rooke says. “It was a huge hit. I thought they’d be picky but they loved it.”

Carnegie Library staffers have stayed on for 12 hours a week until February to help with resources. “It provides a more safe space for kids,” says Librarian Maria Joseph. “It has helped create some friendships that I don’t know would happen without this space.” The space also has AmeriCorps teaching staff during the school year and Duquesne University work-study and volunteer students all year. Those students help with ALEC’s four-week summer camp, which includes a Molly’s Trollies tour of the city, RiverQuest aquatic science lessons and guest cooks, who this year demonstrated purple basil pesto pizza and vegetarian tacos.

Overall this summer at ALEC, Rooke says, “I’m seeing more of an openness to trying new things…,” she adds, “they really like technology time.”

The room grows quiet when 2:00 rolls around. “A little iPad please,” says the most insistent girl. And hers is not even the broadest smile in the bunch.

About The Author

Contributing Writer

Marty Levine's journalism has appeared in Time, Salon.com and throughout Pennsylvania and has won awards from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, The Press Club of Western Pennsylvania and elsewhere. He teaches magazine writing for Creative Nonfiction magazine.