Inside a red brick Victorian in Aspinwall, on computer hard drives and forms stacked high on the desks of the Tickets For Kids Foundation staff, opportunities are gathered daily that will transport the region’s neediest children to places never seen and worlds never experienced. The Grand Lobby of Heinz Hall. A summer camp in the lush folds of the Laurel Highlands. The too-green-to-be-real outfield of PNC Park.
For a few, perhaps, such experiences will move them as profoundly as his first symphony orchestra concert moved Jeffrey Turner.
It wasn’t as though Turner was music-deprived. His mother was a church organist when he was growing up outside Spartanburg, S.C. He played the piano, “country fiddling” was a favorite pastime and he listened to classical recordings. “But to hear an orchestra live for the first time,” he says, “was a revelation.”
In fact, he considers the performance of the Spartanburg Symphony Orchestra he witnessed as a ninth-grader to be a formative event in his journey from the family peach farm to Heinz Hall, where he performs as principal bassist for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. “It is very hard to want to do something that you’ve never seen done. So, it was a profound influence,” says the 43-year-old Turner, who joined the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in 1987. “I’m not sure that at the time I thought of it as a career option so much as I thought of it as a fantastic thing that moved me in a way that not a lot of other things in the culture had.”
Giving needy children opportunities to experience the region’s cultural, educational and entertainment treasures, and professional and college sporting events they might not otherwise witness is a concept western Pennsylvanians have embraced with a vengeance. Started as a mom-and-pop nonprofit in 1994, Tickets For Kids has gone from raising about 6,000 tickets a year to having the resources to send 154,000 children and families on 7,000 field trips in 2005.
Last year, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) alone donated more than $1 million in Pittsburgh Penguins tickets to be distributed by Tickets for Kids. UPMC’s gift was the largest single donation in the foundation’s history and helped to continue a trend that has seen revenue rise steadily and the nonprofit distribute more tickets to more children each year.
The Tickets for Kids concept has remained unchanged from when the foundation was launched by a western Pennsylvania couple, who to this day insist on anonymity. Struck by the number of seats that sat empty at some of the events they attended, the couple set out see if they could raise free tickets to fill the seats with underprivileged children.
Working out of their home, they quickly discovered that many institutions, venues, corporations and others were more than willing to donate tickets to that end. They also learned that social service agencies and community organizations were eager to accept the tickets to give the children they served the kinds of experiences they were missing.
“I can’t tell you how many kids living in the Hill District had never been in the Mellon Arena before they became partners with Tickets for Kids,” says Vera Marelli, the foundation’s program director. “Or how many South Side children had never been Downtown to an event. Or how many kids on the North Side had never been inside PNC Park or Heinz Field.
“It’s as if there are imaginary boundaries set up around different neighborhoods. What we try to do is give these kids and their families the confidence to step over those boundaries and explore.”
To help them cross those boundaries, Tickets for Kids relies on the benevolence of well over 100 western Pennsylvania companies, foundations, venues and individuals who donate tickets, grants for the purchase of tickets or, in some cases, provide both means of support.
The list of supporters bears some of the region’s biggest names, including UPMC, Dominion, Columbia Gas, Reed Smith LLP, Duquesne Light, the Heinz Endowments, PNC Charitable Trust and the Birmingham Foundation. Support is also provided by the venues themselves, including the Pittsburgh Pirates, Penguins, Pittsburgh Zoo, The Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center and organizations affiliated with The Cultural Trust. And the nonprofit is often able to obtain free tickets or deeply discounted tickets from out-of-town producers whose shows are scheduled to play in Pittsburgh. Negotiated purchases, says Marelli, typically yield $3 in value for every dollar spent by the nonprofit.
As the volume of donated tickets increased over the years, so has the scope and complexity of the distribution system necessary to get them into the hands of children and make sure they actually get to the event. Tickets for Kids distributes free tickets through partnerships with 600 social service agencies and community organizations that serve underprivileged children.
These groups undergo training on the planning and mechanics that go into successful field trips to shows, museums, summer camps, ballgames and other events. They must agree to arrange transportation, often an obstacle for low-income families. And they are required to report their experiences and outcomes following each outing.
The reports are shared with donors and are used to determine an agency’s eligibility to receive future tickets.
“There is an accountability factor built in,” says Marelli. “It’s not as simple as just getting free tickets in the mail.”
Expectations are modest. An outing is considered plenty successful if it opens a child’s eyes to a world never experienced or provides a moment of sheer enjoyment or a memory of sharing something new and exciting with a friend or parent. And there is always the chance that it could mean something more.
For Matt Lamanna, it was a seventh-grade field trip to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. that, he says, confirmed what he had suspected since before grade school: His would be a life devoted to paleontology.
Growing up in Waterloo, N.Y., dinosaurs were his passion. He read about them, studied them, drew them, thought about them, talked about them. But he had never seen a single collection of dinosaur remains until that field trip.
“It was influential,” says Lamanna, 30, assistant curator of vertebrae paleontology at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. “I remember thinking, wow, these are real. I’ve waited my whole life for this. It was like seeing a rock star. It was an otherworldly experience.”