BY VALENTINE J. BRKICH
They file off of the bus one by one, bouncing with energy after a long day at school. Their names are uncommon, and they hail from faroff places like Nepal, Thailand, and Burundi. Besides that, they're just like any other kids you'll find in western Pennsylvania — spirited, boisterous, and full of life. These are the children of refugees. Their parents came to the United States in the hopes of giving them a better life. And thanks to people like Jim Guffey '89, that's just what they're getting.
Guffey is the executive director of South Hills Interfaith Ministries, a human services organization that provides struggling families with valuable resources like food and clothing, as well as a variety of family support programs. The charity serves more than 1,300 needy individuals each year through its two locations in Whitehall and Bethel Park. Last year the organization distributed approximately 250,000 pounds of food and household products, and more than 7,000 clothing items. It also provided families with over $43,000 in utility assistance and donated more than $9,000 in back-to-school supplies.
Through the Prospect Park Family Center, the ministries serve around 800 refugee and immigrant families living in a large apartment community in Whitehall. Established in 2007, the center provides free services, including home health care visits, child development screenings, group activities, and referrals. Family development specialists also work closely with the families, offering activities and information to promote child development.
The charity also offers free preschool. An afterschool program at the Whitehall Presbyterian Church for elementary school children, funded though the county and a Heinz Endowments grant, serves 65 students and has 15 staff members, as well as teachers' aides who are usually refugee mothers. Jenet Kenyisasuk, a refugee from Sudan, is an aide and has three children in the program: Kabang, a fourth grader; Jubek, a second grader; and Sasuk, a kindergartener. “My children are happy," she says. "They enjoy the activities, and they love the homework help. It helps them in school. I hope the program continues.”
Most of the families living at Prospect Park were sponsored by Catholic Charities, which, along with the Jewish Family and Children's Service, began resettling refugees here over a decade ago. Many of these refugees — Bosnians, Meskhetian Turks, Iraqis, Afghans, Burmese, Burundians, Bhutanese, Nepali, Sudanese, and Congolese — lived for months or even years in refugee camps while waiting to get clearance to the United States. "Today, generations live in refugee camps," says Guffey. "It's all they know."
The agencies are required to provide services for resettled families for up to 90 days. After that, they're on their own. That's why Guffey's organization is so important. The charity offers field trips, family nights, and guest speakers to promote a sense of community. It also helps refugees learn and practice English, in partnership with the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council.
Pantries at both Whitehall and Bethel Park stock food and household items, and Guffey says the pantries are set up to provide a realistic shopping experience for the families. For those who are unable to read English, picture cards are placed on the shelves to aid in identification. "It all goes back to the idea of respect," he says. "When you treat these people with respect, it really goes a long way to helping them get back on their feet again." The Walmart Foundation recently awarded a $30,000 grant to support the program.
Clustering such a diverse population in one place gives the people something they need — a sense of community. However, managing such a diverse population is not without its challenges. "First of all, you have the cultural issues," says Guffey. "What do you do in an emergency situation when a husband refuses to let an E.M.T. touch his wife, simply because of his religious beliefs?" There can be political issues, such as concerns when refugee children place additional demands on the school district. Space is another issue. "Our current facility is pretty much maxed out, and we're limited in what we can do," he says.
At RMU, Guffey was a sport management major. Two of his professors, Stephen Hardy, Ph.D., and Bill Sutton, Ed.D., pushed him to push himself beyond the classroom. "They told me to get out and get some real-life experience — do internships, volunteer. So that's what I did," he says. By chance a girl in one of Guffey's classes lived in Marquette, Mich., where the Great Lakes State Games had some internship openings. "Four of us went up from the sport management department," says Guffey. "That's when I first fell in love with major civic events."
During his final semester at RMU, Guffey interned with the Pittsburgh Marathon, where he made a ton of Pittsburgh connections. After graduating, he immediately got a job with the Pittsburgh Office of Special Events. "As Dr. Hardy always preached," says Guffey, "it's all about creating a network."
In 1997 Guffey became director of operations for the Pittsburgh Three Rivers Regatta, and soon found himself surrounded by turmoil when founder and president Eugene Connelly fired the event's vice president, who then publicly accused Connelly of misusing regatta funds for personal gain. Connelly, a respected community figure who served on numerous boards, eventually pleaded guilty to tax evasion relating to money he kept from the regatta. Guffey was soon without a job, but he looks at the positive side. "It actually turned out to be a great learning experience for me, because I was able to learn the correct way to manage an organization's books."
Through his connections, Guffey was hired later that year by the American Heart Association as corporate relations manager for the Pittsburgh Heart Walk. One day he visited a local technology company, Online Choice, to see if they'd be interested in sponsoring the walk, and they ended up calling him back about an opening. Guffey saw it as an opportunity to see things from the other side of the table, and in 2000, he joined the company as their director of corporate sponsorship. When the Internet bubble burst that same year, the company began laying off employees, and on December 23 they got rid of the entire marketing department. At the time, Guffey and his wife were expecting their first child.
Immediately Guffey sent a resume out to a man he knew at Heinz. Coincidentally, the CEO of Heinz contacted him to inquire about the permit for Point State Park, which Guffey had acquired for the Heart Walk. One thing led to another and his resume got forwarded to the United Way, where he eventually met with William J. Meyer, the organization's president and chief professional officer, and was hired on the spot as a corporate relations manager. "He hadn't even seen my resume yet," says Guffey. "But like I learned at Robert Morris, it's all about doing good and respecting people. When you do that, it all comes back to you."
When South Hills Interfaith Ministries sought a director of development and public relations in 2006, Guffey applied for the job and has been there ever since. "It's easy to see that South Hills Interfaith Ministries is an extremely well-run organization, and it starts with its leadership," says Robert M. Connolly '77, executive director of the Massey Charitable Trust who recently toured the Prospect Park Family Center and visited the afterschool program. "Jim has all the necessary management skills and know-how, plus he is passionate, enthusiastic, and practical at the same time. He truly is one of the Pittsburgh region's outstanding nonprofit leaders."
Dave Synowka, Ph.D., head of RMU's department of sport management, has known Guffey for years. He actually selected Guffey as one of his subjects for his doctoral dissertation research at the University of Pittsburgh. "Jim was always professional, engaged, and involved, and he took advantage of every educational and professional opportunity that came his way," says Synowka. "He's a great guy."
Even though he didn't end up in sport management, Guffey says he is still grateful for the education he received at RMU. "Although this can be a difficult job at times, I love coming to work every day and doing what I can to help these people. It wasn't what I thought I'd be doing when I was still back at Robert Morris, but my professors gave me the guidance I needed to get out there and be successful in whatever career I chose. They taught me how to find success."