YMWAHA founder retires after 18 years


Above: Janice Parks during an exhibition featuring “traditional quilting and heritage arts” at The New Hazlett Theater.(Photo courtesy YMWAHA).

Early on Tuesday mornings, those in the office for the Young Men and Women’s African Heritage Association could be sure of two things ­– its director Janice Parks would be hard at work and her homemade soup would be steaming in the kitchen.

Parks, the founder and former executive director of YMWAHA, never missed a Tuesday soup day or the opportunity to tell it like it is said her coworkers.

Recently retired, she has passed her responsibilities on to a newer generation that she trusts will keep the YMWAHA alive.

The organization began in 1994 when the Northside community expressed a need for culturally specified foster care services for African Americans said Park.

“We responded to a need for a service that considered the life-long wellness of children in foster care and the questions that race present in the adoption process,” said Parks.

Today, though still anchored in child welfare, YMWAHA utilizes arts, education and culture programs in hopes of developing a more productive population in Allegheny County.

Eric Asongwed, Parks’ successor, said the programs make a big impact on the kids they serve.

“We really look to build up well-rounded individuals,” said Asongwed. “We have individuals who come back 5 years, 10 years, 15 years later telling us how important our programs were to their future and success.”

Working so closely with Parks, Asongwed explained that she was a great mentor, friend and family member.

With an open-door policy, her colleagues often came to her for advice for not only questions pertaining to the organizations, but difficult questions concerning life.

Development and events manager, Pamela Pennywell, felt that Parks will be most missed for her honesty.

“We work in a field where there are difficult and honest truths that need to be addressed,” said Pennywell. “Janice is the only one who is very willing to answer the hard questions. The questions that people may not really want to hear.”

In response to this praise, Parks responds uneasily.

“Well, I suppose that is why I don’t have many friends,” said Parks with a laugh. “There is always a price in saying what people do not want to hear. But if it is not the truth, it is not worth saying.”

She now refers to herself as a framer to the organization who helps the future generation to take charge and continue the development of YMWAHA.

Some projects she looks forward to advising are the urban garden and the various artists groups created by the organization such as, the drum ensemble and the quilters’ guild.

Along with her advice and experience, both Asongwed and Pennywell mentioned how much they will miss Parks’ famous Soup Tuesdays, which offer free soup to any visitor to the office each Tuesday between the months of October and March.

According to Parks, however, they may not have to miss it after all.

“I am not disappearing from Pittsburgh just yet. As long as soup is wanted, I will be cooking. Soup Tuesdays will begin again come October,” said Parks.

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