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On the cutting edge

John Simmons | Jul 09, 2018

Youth playing with a parachute

Mark Samuel was a young man playing basketball with children at a community center on the east side of Youngstown, Ohio, when he first learned about Kiwanis.

“I saw a logo on the back of the backboard that said 'Kiwanis,'” he says, “and I wondered what it meant.”

The moment seemed insignificant at the time, but it was the beginning of a 30-year relationship that would change Samuel’s life and significantly impact the lives of countless others in Youngstown's inner city.

Samuel is now the CEO of Heart Reach Neighborhood Ministries, a faith-based nonprofit formed in 1913 to assist families in the city's poorest neighborhoods.

“The need is great,” says Samuel. “The city was really hit hard when the steel mills left.”

So hard, in fact, that a recent study by the Brookings Institute lists Youngstown as America's poorest city, with nearly half its children living below the poverty line.  

From humble beginnings, Heart Reach now operates three community centers and 20 feeding sites, where families are served hot, nutritious meals.  

Samuel is also a member of Youngstown's Kiwanis club, which often assists the organization.

“Heart Reach offers a wonderful service,” says club Treasurer Jerry Osborne, “providing hundreds of meals throughout the city to the underprivileged. We've also helped Heart Reach by sponsoring such events as community-wide vision and hearing checkups and by purchasing backpacks for the kids. Mark has come to us many times, and we are always happy to help.”

The Heart Reach/Kiwanis partnership most recently was on display in May, when the two organizations purchased and installed computers at the Rockford Village and Kirwan Homes community centers. Big-screen TVs also were purchased for use with existing computers at the Northside Community Center.

 “We live in a technology-filled world,” says Samuel, “and you really need to know how to use a computer to compete. But many of our families are too poor to afford computers in their homes. There was a real need at our three community centers for a computer upgrade, but we needed help.”

To get funds for the computers, Heart Reach applied for a grant from the Kiwanis Foundation in Ohio.

“We pitched in the difference,” says Osborne.

Funds for the project were raised through the club's annual radio auction, Youngstown's lone fundraising event that has been held for the past 65 years. This year's auction featured items that included use of a billboard (donated by a billboard company), gift cards to area restaurants, an Amazon Echo, a toaster oven, a cordless trimmer, several rounds of golf (donated by a golf course), an estate plan (donated by an attorney), even a hand-painted portrait of the bidder’s favorite pet (donated by a popular local artist).  

“Our auction is a lot of fun,” Osborne says. “People look forward to it, and we raise a considerable amount of money, which we disburse throughout the year. The positive impact on our community is enormous. It also gives us the luxury of not having to sell pancakes and strawberries every week.”

The Kiwanis-installed computers already are in active use in after-school and summer sessions that offer homework help and tutoring to children in kindergarten through eighth grade.

“With kids, everything is visual,” says Samuel, “and our new computers give our kids a really good edge. Our goal at Heart Reach is to help kids be all they can be by providing them with the resources and experiences they need to prepare them for later in life. We always want to impress upon our kids the many opportunities they have for learning beyond high school, and Kiwanis remains a big part of that.”

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