By Neil Cosgrove
Steel Smiling, a recent project of the Thomas Merton Center, has come a long way in the three-and-a-half years since its founder Julius Boatwright became proactive in sharing “therapeutic-style conversations with everyday people on the streets of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County.”
As a community-based mental-health therapist, Boatwright recalls, “I witnessed first-hand how barriers to accessing adequate treatment were impacting community members. To be specific, there were too many black people who weren’t receiving the education and support that they needed in a preventative fashion.”
As he pursued these conversations, Boatwright dove into the process of building his non-profit organization, working with a consultant, gathering initial donations through an online fundraising campaign, and obtaining, through the advocacy of Michelle McMurray of the Pittsburgh Foundation, Steel Smiling’s first grant from that foundation’s Small and Mighty program.
Even before the grant came through, McMurray advised Boatwright to find a fiscal sponsor, an established 501(c) (3) non-profit capable of assisting Steel Smiling with bookkeeping, accounting, and auditing. Ros Mulholland, the Merton Center’s Finance Director/Project Liaison, observes that “people have no idea how intricate the accounting is” for a fledgling organization like Boatwright’s.
That initial fiscal sponsor turned out to be the Thomas Merton Center. “Antonio Lodico (the center’s previous Executive Director) … helped us develop a deep appreciation for what it truly takes to operate a successful nonprofit organization with integrity,” says Boatwright. “Ros … guided us in the right direction on our fiscal journey. Gabriel McMorland, the current Executive Director, … continuously made time to ensure that we were being incubated with care and compassion.
“Without the Thomas Merton Center,” Boatwright concludes, “Steel Smiling wouldn’t be a fraction of what it is today.”
Steel Smiling’s website depicts a growing, highly engaged community asset that offers the aforementioned therapeutic street conversations, therapeutic interventions (referring community members to mental health care providers), education and trainings (providing 134 adult and youth mental health first aid training certifications), and community conversations that “bring together community members, mental health practitioners, and servant leaders.”
Beams to Bridges, scheduled for a September launch, will collaborate with Duquesne University’s Psychology Department, Pitt’s School of Social Work, Neighborhood Allies, and others in producing a nine-month mental health training and education program “designed to meet the needs of black community members,” says Boatwright. “Twenty cohort participants will complete 45 hours of hands-on, experiential-learning style opportunities during their time together. They’ll uncover how to identify the signs and symptoms of mental health challenges within themselves and their peers,” and learn how “to connect people in their neighborhoods with the appropriate level of support.”
Steel Smiling is in the process of developing what now looks to be a close partnership with Neighborhood Allies, currently the primary funding partner for the Beams to Bridges program. Boatwright says the details of that partnership are still being worked out but promises a joint announcement will be made soon.
“Once we’re able to publicly share our collaborative plans, the world will not be disappointed,” adds Boatwright. “Let’s just say that it has the potential to transform communitybased mental and behavioral health delivery throughout the entire country.”
Such a statement sounds even more ambitious than the one Boatwright made to the City Paper back in May, that his organization’s “grand vision is to expose every black adult in the city of Pittsburgh to at least one mental health experience that improves their quality of life by 2030.” It suggests a growing confidence in Steel Smiling’s potential and contrasts with his admission that there have been times when he felt like quitting and had to lean on the encouragement and support of his wife, Lauren Stoner.
Those who have worked with Boatwright over the past few years, and witnessed the growth of the organization he founded, share that confidence. “Julius is smart, patient, devoted and gracious,” Mulholland observes. “He is a rising star in the non-profit community … and I am sure his star and his mission is going to continue to rise.”
PHOTO:COMMUNITY MEMBERS, COMMUNITY LEADERS, AND ORGANIZATIONAL PARTNERS PARTICIPATING IN A SUICIDE PREVENTION MONTH FORUM. THE COMMUNITY-BASED EVENT WAS HELD AT THE JERON X. GRAYSON COMMUNITY CENTER IN THE HILL DISTRICT DURING SEPTEMBER OF 2018. PHOTO SUBMITTED BY JULIUS A. BOATWRIGHT
Neil Cosgrove is a member of the NewPeople editorial collective and the Merton Center board