- Associated Press - Saturday, November 15, 2014

PITTSBURGH (AP) - Anthony Scaletta spent the summer of 2009 building rainwater collection systems for families in Tanzania.

The University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown graduate was looking for an overseas experience when he finished his junior year that mixed coursework with volunteerism. He was interested in community development. He was interested in helping.

The Navy combat veteran found his opportunity through Amizade, a Lawrenceville-based organization that has been establishing opportunities for people to combine study abroad with community service for 20 years.

Amizade celebrated its anniversary Friday with a mayoral proclamation followed Saturday with a party in the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh in the North Side. Leaders say that from a single program in Brazil to more than 80 all over the world, about 1,000 students or lifelong learners from Pittsburgh and beyond have spent a couple of weeks or a couple of months per year learning about the world while giving back.

“We really explored what it means to serve,” said Scaletta, who is in North Carolina developing yoga programs for veterans. “I couldn’t have imagined my life without it.”

Amizade was started in 1994 by Daniel Weiss, a Chicago man who had done community service in the Brazilian Amazon before going to graduate school in Minnesota. In 1995, Weiss led a group that built an orthopedic shoe workshop in Brazil. The word Amizade means friendship in Portuguese, which is spoken in Brazil.

“I was looking at snowdrifts, dreaming of Brazil,” Weiss said. “I wanted to give people the experience I had in Brazil.”

Amizade came to Pittsburgh in 1999 through a relationship with the University of Pittsburgh. It almost didn’t survive.

After 9/11, as Americans grappled with fear of travel, former director Mike Sandy said interest fell off. “Our phone stopped ringing for three weeks,” he said.

But a few months later, interest in international travel picked up again, and the organization began to grow. Sandy said what sets Amizade apart from other study-abroad or volunteer-vacation programs is the concept of free-trade, service learning.

The popularity of university-associated study abroad has steadily grown. Most of Amizade’s programs run through university and college study abroad and community engagement offices.

Ten percent of a program’s cost goes to Amizade, said director Brandon Blache-Cohen. The rest goes to the community that houses and feeds participants.

“It’s very easy to be the American organization with the money, the resources and the people to go down and start making unilateral decisions about what’s needed in the community,” Sandy said. “What’s unique about Amizade is that we do it in mutual partnership with our sites and partners overseas.”

The cost depends: a one-week domestic program costs about $600, said Blache-Cohen, and a one-semester program in Bolivia costs $12,000. The number of credits earned depends on the college. Nearly every college and university in Western Pennsylvania has gone through Amizade for a service-learning program, Blache-Cohen said.

The Institute for International Education in New York said that during the 2011-12 school year, 283,000 students at 1,083 colleges and universities got credit for coursework overseas.

Shorter-term study abroad projects tend to fall into another category of work, internship and volunteer abroad. The institute’s staff said that during the 2011-12 school year, 20,676 students at about 500 colleges and universities got course credit for WIVA.

One Amizade program works in Petersfield, Jamaica. For a film-making course, American students helped parents in a small town make a fundraising video for a summer camp.

“Instead of making a video about whatever, they made a promotional video. Because you are doing service, it’s often so much more impactful and powerful,” said Jessica Friedrichs, a former Amizade staff member who runs the service-learning program at Carlow University, where service is required to graduate.

Blache-Cohen said Amizade selects programs based on inquiries, but only if the program has a strong community buy-in, a local connection with English-speaking skills and budgeting skills, and the ability for the proposed program to survive.

Some projects happen in Pittsburgh. Last week, a group of students and young professionals from Northern Ireland spent a week doing service projects in the United States, including packing backpacks with weekend meals for students at a Hill District school.

“In some places, we were cleaning. In other places, we were packing food. It lets us bring back what we could do at home,” said Aoife Foster, 19, a particpating student from Queens University Belfast.

After moving the organization from Downtown to Lawrenceville earlier this year, Blache-Cohen said one goal is to improve Amizade’s visibility in the area. People know about service-learning, he said, but they don’t know that it started in their backyards.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto gave Blache-Cohen, Sandy, Weiss and the leaders of a dozen of its American and international programs a proclamation on Friday, hailing the organization for its role building global awareness in a city wanting its international footprint to grow.





Information from: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, https://pghtrib.com

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