The Kingsley Association and the East End go way back. While originally established in 1893 in the Strip District as a settlement house for Pittsburgh’s working-class families, the organization has called Larimer and East Liberty home since 1919.
Over the years, Kingsley has served as a vital hub for the community, providing a wide range of free programs to residents—from boy’s and girl’s clubs and swimming to senior classes and educational and career guidance. Dexter Hairston joined Kingsley in 2019 as the organization’s executive director. Under his leadership, Kingsley has renewed their commitment to supporting and inspiring our neighborhood’s youth while providing wrap-around services for every generation.
We recently caught up with Dexter to hear more about what the Kingsley Association is up to now. He tells us about how his background in public education and at the YMCA is informing his leadership at Kingsley and what he sees as the organization’s core offerings and role in the East End’s continuing evolution.
What is your focus as a relatively new leader of the Kingsley Association?
When I first came here a little over two years ago, we were considered a community hub, but what I saw as a shortcoming was that, while we opened our doors to many different agencies and organizations in the community, we didn’t have a signature youth program of our own. In my background, I have been successful in running teen-oriented and teen leadership programs. The young people who went through those programs always come back with positive words about how the programs motivated them or helped them find themselves—just by getting support from adult mentors. So, in short, we’re developing those in-house programs now at Kingsley. What we’re trying to do is prepare young people for either post-secondary opportunities or share some life skills and job preparation skills, so that when high school’s over, whatever avenue they want to travel, they’ll be a little bit more prepared. We were lucky enough to strike up a partnership with Google that is allowing us to kick off our school year version of this teen leadership program in October.
Youth development is a big deal for us, but the overall health and wellness of our community is as well. We have so many people coming through the doors, both young and old. Aquatics is huge for us right now. From a daily attendance figure, we probably have more people coming through the doors for that than anything else. Then we have health and wellness classes, a gymnasium, and a fitness center. Post-COVID, we’re trying to get folks back in more of a normal mentality or mindset. We’re currently doing a “bring a friend week”, so anyone who is a member can bring a friend free of charge until October 23rd.
How does the Kingsley Association’s work tie in with the Larimer Vision Plan and other East End community development groups?
We recently re-engaged in a commitment to work with several East End nonprofits, including East Liberty Housing, East Liberty Development, Inc., and the Larimer Consensus Group through a group called KEEL. This is a meeting of the minds on a very regular basis, so that as a group, we make sure that we have our eyes and ears attuned to what’s needed in the community, and agree to work together to address those needs. We’re examining everything that we’re seeing, hearing, and witnessing and then bringing that information to the group at large. That way we can make decisions based on real data and information versus an idea or whim.
How has what the community needed, and as a result, your offerings, changed over time?
I’ve been here now for about 26 months, and the odd part is that 18 out of 26 of those months has been through this pandemic. So, although we have changed some things and grown, other things came to a halt since we literally did not have people in the building. But it gave me and my team a chance to take our time and be more strategic. We’ve made upgrades to our technology, signing on with PGH Networks. This has allowed us to be more expansive. For example, we have a deal with Allegheny County to serve as a free WIFI spot. So, during the height of COVID when a lot of Pittsburgh Public School (PPS) students were at home, we ran a learning hub here. We did that for the elementary school kids and Youth Places ran it in our building for the middle school and high school kids. In addition, at different times of the day, folks that didn’t have WIFI access would park in our parking lot so that their kids could do their homework.
We really have tried to stay connected to what the pandemic has brought forward and how we can help. In that vein, we are also an Emergency Rental Assistance Program. We are in our second iteration of that, and it’s been extended here at our site through the end of 2021. We have a wonderful space and talented staff members that can learn what’s needed and then assist community members so that they get their questions answered.
So maybe someone comes in for swimming, but then finds a whole range of services that can help them?
You just hit it. That is our ultimate goal: that people come in for one reason and find out that there’s so much else here. We’ve done a lot to that end by simply upgrading both our website and facility, including adding more interior and exterior signage, new flooring, as well as new paintings, flowers, and landscaping to enhance the aesthetics. Plus, we have been taking better advantage of our social media platforms. We’re always trying to make sure that people feel welcomed and comfortable when they come in.
Whatever we do, we’re going to be 100% invested in. Kingsley is passionate about helping community members in whatever endeavors they have.
Can you tell us a little about your background and how you came to the Kingsley Association?
I spent 13 years in public education working in a special education environment. Following that, I spent 18 years with a variety of YMCAs, including the Greater Pittsburgh YMCA, where I was last. I have a lot of experience in—and passion for—working with young people. Now that I’m in an executive director role, there’s a lot of administrative stuff, meetings, and shaking hands, but when I can get away for a half-hour and spend it with young people, that reinvigorates me. So, I’m going to keep being involved in the programs that we offer—I think that’s important. Not just saying, “Well, we run it”, but actually being a face in the crowd or leading some of the components.
As the East End continues to grow and change, what do you see as the Kingsley Association’s role in that change?
We believe in being at the table, listening to the conversations that are being had, and making smart, data-driven decisions, not necessarily to be everything to everyone, but to make sure that, when we can, we play a significant role to help. Basically, that means I’ll be making sure that my team is as present as we can be at community meetings and that we come back, share information, decipher it, and figure out what kind of role we want to play. Whatever we do, we’re going to be 100% invested in. Kingsley is passionate about helping community members in whatever endeavors they have.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
We are always looking for talented people and ideas. I tell my folks all the time: we don’t think we have all the answers because the questions change every day. That’s just how nimble and fluid we have to be moving forward.
If anyone is interested in partnering with Kingsley or just visiting to see what we’re doing and how we’re transforming the space that we have, we’re at 6435 Frankstown Avenue 8 am-8 pm Monday through Friday and 9 am-4 pm on Saturdays. We’d love to have people come in, take a tour, and see what’s available. We’re always looking for volunteers as well—we have some great opportunities for people who want to be involved in strengthening their community.