She didn’t have to do it. Brenda Lockley was in the middle of successful banking career, earning lucrative commissions on stock trades.
Instead of taking the more predictable route toward a comfortable retirement, Lockley decided to reinvent her career. Aware of the invisible barriers that can make life hard for low-income minorities and immigrant students in the suburbs, she decided to help the kids break through.
She and her husband, Elmore, were two of the five founding members of Melting Pot Ministries in 2004. She and her 19-person staff now run after-school and summer programs that provides academic, social and emotional support to about 70 kids aged 5 to 18. Lockley started by partnering with nonprofits and focusing on minority children in the city, but soon realized there was a demand for the same type of programs in the suburbs.
Most days, Lockley, 71, leaves her Atlanta Drive home and drives through wealthy neighborhoods with well-manicured lawns and kids at morning baseball practice. She enters Nativity Church in South Park and greets another group of kids who live a different reality.
All the kids at Melting Pot are thrilled to see Lockley. They come from low-income families, living in little pockets of poverty in South Park, Bethel Park, Baldwin and Whitehall. Some are African-American kids who moved from the city, while others are the children of parents who emigrated here from Liberia, Kenya, Malawi and other African nations. Others are Bhutanese refugees who came here from Nepal.
“They are going to schools with kids whose fathers are lawyers and drive BMWs and take nice vacations,” she says. “Meanwhile, their mother doesn’t even have a car and she makes $19,000 a year and works nights.”
Without transportation or money for private lessons, these kids are often isolated from the social experiences of going to school. “They don’t get dancing lessons or gymnastic classes. Our kids don’t have the ability to try out for cheerleading,” Lockley says. “They can’t try out for volleyball and the school play if their mother can’t pick them up.”
It’s hard for Lockley to stay still even when she’s temporarily hobbled by a knee replacement. An effusive talker, she praises the kids and listens to their problems—stories of academic struggles, white classmates who mistakenly view them as threatening, tensions at home. During one art therapy session, a group of middle school girls made drawings as they talked about their anger and sadness that their fathers were not in their lives.
“It’s like a little family,” says Bryan Kargbo, a 15-year-old from Baldwin. “You can come and be yourself and not have any problems. If you do, you learn how to resolve it.”
“Miss Lockley puts everyone before herself,” says LaShauna Martinez, a 14-year-old who attends South Park High School. “She’s a nice and caring lady who is willing to help everyone and anybody.”
Lockley was drawn to help in the suburbs one day at church, when she heard about five African American students in South Park who were failing at school, much like the kids in the city-based program. That’s when she decided she had to help students whose families had moved to the suburbs for safety but were academically behind and socially isolated. At first, the program focused on narrowing the academic achievement gap but then broadened to include support for emotional and social issues.
She and Elmore, who became a licensed professional counselor after 31 years as manager of media relations for Peoples Gas, didn’t take a salary for the first six years. They went on to hire qualified teachers for academic support.
With funding from Allegheny County and many foundations to help run their annual budget of nearly $500,000, they have hired other staff, including graduates of Melting Pot to work at the summer camp.
Precious Malloy, 21, attended Melting Pot while at the South Park School District, and now she helps younger girls with their issues and how to mediate their disputes. She says Melting Pot is one of the reasons she ended up at Slippery Rock University, studying political science with plans to go to law school.
“I love Miss Lockley so much. I never knew how smart I was. She would say that you can do whatever you want,” Malloy says. “She could always see something good in you. She really helped me on the path to get to college.”
Lockley sometimes continues to help these first-generation college students after, buying items for their dorm rooms and even driving some to college for the first time, walking out of the dorm with a sense of pride. Finally, they are no longer the kid who lives on a poor street in an affluent suburb.
“No one cares about your address in college,” Lockley says. “You can be whoever you want to be.”