Light of Life is a hub of outreach and hope during disasters

REVEREND JERREL T. GILLIAM

For 70 years, Pittsburgh’s Light of Life has been helping people who are experiencing homelessness, living in poverty, and/or suffering from addiction. The goal is to transform lives through the love of Christ.

The organization is also part of the city’s “hidden” public health infrastructure, providing street-level assistance during emergencies and disasters.

That help consists of everything from passing out hygiene products and essential clothing to victims of the recent Shady Park Place apartment fire in North Braddock to on-going efforts to address the inequities of the pandemic. All without red tape.

In late February 2020, Light of Life’s skills were put to the test. Reverend Jerrel T. Gilliam, Executive Director, was attending a meeting for emergency shelter providers in Washington, D.C. when he learned about COVID. “I came back waving the red flag about infection,” he remembers.

When outbreaks occurred and Pittsburgh went into quarantine, Light of Life began planning. How would they protect — and contain, if necessary — their clients and themselves?

As the pandemic unfolded, Light of Life served as a hub of help to underserved communities. Here are highlights:

Partnering with a local business that donated water buffaloes that Light of Life used to set up hygiene stations and hand washing.

Supplying Allegheny County’s Dept. of Human Services with food and hygiene kits for the dept’s emergency COVID shelter. Some of Light of Life’s clients quarantined and received care there.

Setting up a large tent in a lot next to the mission where clients received emergency shelter services during the pandemic. (Ten of Light of Life’s employees also volunteered to live in an enclosed area at the mission for quarantine purposes.)

Distributing hand sanitizer to clients during a nationwide shortage. (Pitt chemistry students created the gel in labs.)

Spreading information to homeless communities and clearing up any misinformation.

Working with community organizations, including Pitt, to identify and vaccinate high-risk individuals, such as elders.

Coordinating vaccine pop-up clinics in neighborhood churches and community centers.

Meeting with community influencers, including bringing together African American mothers/grandmothers and Black doctors for Q&A sessions about vaccine safety.

‘We couldn’t have done this on our own,” says Jerrel. “Many partner service providers, foundations, and faith-based agencies came together to make things happen during the pandemic. That includes Alcosan, Buhl’s One Northside, Goodwill, North Side Christian Health Center, and others,” he adds. “Our role was to coordinate their efforts.”

One good thing did come out of the pandemic, Jerrel notes. The Black Equity Coalition (BEC) is a network of mostly Black professionals, executive leaders, medical doctors, researchers, and community stakeholders. Their goal is to make sure black and brown communities receive accurate and reliable COVID-19 information.

“All of us on the BEC are determined to eliminate pandemic health inequities,” Jerrel states. 

Jerrel’s input on the BEC is another example of Light of Life’s belief in the power of people working together for racial justice. He adds, “When each of us does our little bit of good for our fellow humans, big things happen.”

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