Carlos Carter and his family found themselves homeless when Carlos was just two years old after his family’s house in Braddock burned down right before Christmas. It is only fitting that life has led former banker Carlos to work as executive director of the Homeless Children’s Education Fund, a nonprofit in Pittsburgh that supports the educational needs of Allegheny County youth. Here, we talk with Carlos about his background, what the organization does and how Pittsburghers like you can get involved.
PITTSBURGH BEAUTIFUL: What was the inspiration for starting such an organization? Could you also share a bit of your own background as well?
CARLOS CARTER: Our founder Dr. Joseph Lagana founded the organization 20 years ago. He used to run the [branch of the PA Department of Education] Allegheny Intermediate Unit but when his mother became ill, the job just got too demanding so he ended up retiring at 60. He was looking for some meaning to his life post-retirement and while in an Atlanta airport he knocked over a book display—twice! He then felt obligated to buy a book, so he purchased John Grisham’s “Street Lawyer,” which follows a homeless man. Later, while praying inside a church in the Strip District, he came across a donation can for homeless children. He felt encouraged and inspired to do something for homeless youth. Before the Homeless Children’s Education Fund existed, shelters were like stark prison cells for children. Now, we work to make them feel more at home with kid friendly spaces.
As far as more about my own background, I was homeless at two years old when our house burned down right before Christmas. We didn’t have anywhere to go. More recently, my wife and I took in a young lady who was homeless and gave her the love and support she needed to have a good life for herself. Our motto here at the organization is to create hope through learning. We’re more mission-focused, changing lives and empowering people to realize they are people.
PB: Can you tell us a little more about the organization?
CC: Our mission is to advance the education of children and youth who are experiencing homelessness and to guide them to be productive and empowered citizens through collaboration and advocacy. We work with 27 homeless agencies in Allegheny County and created learning centers within the shelters. We provide enrichment programs, bringing arts and sciences into shelters. We also run five after-school programs as well as field trips and cooking programs with the children and their parents. There are often broken relationships between parents and kids, so we want to make the kids feel like they matter. Our Roadmap Teen Program helps kids ages 13+. Teens are often hard to reach but the need is so great. We provide college and career readiness preparation to them. Right now there’s around 20 students in college due to the work we do.
PB: What sort of things can Pittsburghers do to help?
CC: They can volunteer to help tutor teens and expose them to different careers. They can also educated their community about children experiencing homelessness. Pittsburghers can also organize a donation drive or donate themselves.
PB: Can you share with us a success story from your efforts?
CC: There’s a young lady named Monet who came to us at 15. She was in our Teen Program and Roadmap Project to put youth experiencing homeless on the path to college and careers. Her mom had passed away and she and her younger brother were left alone in their home to try and make ends meet. It became too much for Monet and she started struggling in school and at one point, due to the secondhand smoke from her brother’s smoking she suffered a severe asthma attack and was hospitalized for weeks and almost passed away herself. She got to us and received tutoring, encouragement and housing. She’s now an honor roll student and will be enrolling in college this fall. Her late mother’s only wish was for her to attend college and now she plans to.
PB: What would Pittsburgh be surprised to know about the homeless population?
CC: There are over 3,000 homeless youth in the city. At least 40 percent are LGBT (due to not be accepted by their families) and many are African American. They’re two times more likely to face disabilities and four times more likely to be developmentally delayed.
PB: What do you want Pittsburgh to know about the city’s homeless population?
CC: I want them to see youth and people experiencing homelessness as real people just like everyone else. They have hopes and dreams, like to use social media, like to laugh, have fun and do normal activities. When we overcome labels, we are better equipped to connect with each other as individuals at a humanistic level. I want them to support our new teen program that is helping youth like Monet and to help break the cycle of homelessness through education.
More information on the Homeless Children’s Education Fund can be found here.
Know a Pittsburgher making their mark on the city like Carlos? We want to know about it! Comment below with who you’d like to see featured and you may see him or her interviewed in a future post!