One of the greatest pleasures in Mary Harwick’s life comes during her trips to Pittsburgh’s Allegheny County Jail. Every Friday, Harwick visits the women housed there, offering them advice and counsel and hope.
She doesn’t see the women she visits there for the crimes they have committed. Rather, she sees them as the women—the mothers—they can become if given a chance. “I love my parenting classes,” Harwick said. “I love the women, and I love working with them.” And the women love Harwick.
“Miss Mary—she’s no stranger. I love her,” said Kim Squirrel, a former inmate Harwick counseled. “She can’t ever retire. She’s going to have to stay here forever.”
Harwick is seventy and lives in Mt. Lebanon. She has put her IUP education to use in two professional lives: first as a school counselor and now, in her retirement years, as a volunteer for Lydia’s Place, the Pittsburgh nonprofit she helped start. Lydia’s Place offers women at the jail classes on parenting and life skills and gives them help in reentering the world.
Harwick grew up in Brookville, Jefferson County, and followed her older sister, Pat Myers, to IUP. “They sent me to where my sister was a student to keep me out of trouble,” Harwick said. “As soon as she graduated, I eloped.”
Mary Harwick (left) and Yvonne Fiumara
Harwick, an Elementary Education major, met John Harwick, a Secondary Education major, while both worked at the Penn. They eloped in her sophomore year.
“I actually was supposed to graduate in ’56,” Harwick said. “It took me until ’58, because I had three kids in between.”
While raising Barry, Mary Beth, and Bob, Mary and John Harwick continued their IUP studies, both earning master’s degrees in 1960. The family moved around over the next eight years—to Waynesburg, to New York, and back to Pittsburgh.
Mary Harwick worked as a school counselor and, in New York, taught her first parenting classes in conjunction with Project Head Start. From 1969 until her retirement in 1993, Harwick worked as an elementary counselor for the Keystone Oaks School District.
She and John Harwick divorced after thirty-seven years of marriage but remain good friends. In 1988, even before her retirement, Harwick began visiting the old Allegheny County Jail. She was a member of the Christian Women Volunteer Association, and members visited women in jail to do Bible studies and lead aerobics classes. “It became very apparent to us we needed more than just Bible studies,” Harwick said.
The Christian Women Volunteer Association became Women’s Christian Renewal. Lydia’s Place started as a project of the organization. When the new Allegheny County Jail opened in 1995, the group asked if they could offer parenting classes for the women.
“[Jail officials said] ‘If you’ll design them and do them, we’ll start them,’” Harwick recalled. Lydia’s Place was incorporated that same year. For a while, Harwick taught all the parenting classes. Now, she shares the duties with another volunteer. The classes are needed.
“On any given day in Allegheny County there are at least seven thousand children that have a parent in jail,” Harwick said. “I’ve always felt, working with children, that if you work with the parents, the kids will be OK.”
Kim Squirrel can attest to that. She met Harwick in 2003, but she had been in and out of jail since a crack addiction gripped her in the late 1980s. She has two kids, ages twenty-one and thirteen.
Now free of addiction and working three jobs, Squirrel, forty-one, of Pittsburgh, credits Harwick with helping turn her life around. “No matter what we were worried about, she always had some advice,” Squirrel said. “She always had another point of view.”
Every year, Harwick organizes the Lydia’s Place Christmas party at the jail. She starts each May, and her garage gradually fills with stacks of items. Squirrel said the simple gifts received at the party, such as lotion, soap, and deodorant, really made a difference in the women’s time in jail. Most can’t afford such luxuries.
Harwick also chairs New Day Dawning, the fund-raising arm of Lydia’s Place. She said it is difficult each year to find enough donations to keep the program going. It receives no government funding.
“Ladies in jail are not a popular cause,” Harwick said. “We know the women can change, and their lives can be better. Every woman that stays out of jail saves [taxpayers] $24,000 a year.”
Her wish is that more people would see the value in helping these women. “If they could meet the women, if they could actually sit down and talk to them, they would see they can change, they can thrive, and they can become the type of women that society wants,” Harwick said.
For all of her efforts, Harwick was honored with a Jefferson Award in 2002. Harwick was one of seven Pittsburgh-area volunteers selected for the honor at the local level that year. The award is considered the Nobel Prize of volunteerism. “It was certainly nothing I ever expected,” Harwick said.
But it was deserved, Yvonne Fiumara said. “With Miss Harwick, it comes from her heart,” Fiumara said. “You can just tell she doesn’t do things because she has to. She does it because she wants to and she cares.”
Fiumara, who met Harwick at the jail in 2001, said the counselor always was more concerned for the inmates than for herself.
IUP alumni Mary Harwick and Kip Bryant
Harwick said her visits helped her deal with the death of her daughter. Mary Beth Harwick, a 1984 alumna of IUP, died in a January, 2004, car accident. “These women supported me,” Harwick said.
Harwick isn’t the only person with IUP connections at Lydia’s Place. Recently elected board president Kip Bryant is a 1980 Criminology graduate. He works as youth coordinator for employment and training at the Allegheny County Department of Human Services.
Bryant, an assistant football coach for Perry Traditional Academy in Pittsburgh, got his players involved with volunteer projects at Lydia’s Place before being asked to join the board a year ago. “I said I really didn’t have the time, but it sounds like something God’s asking me to do,” Bryant said. A year after joining the board, he became president.
“You’re going to be a good one too,” Harwick, who has also served as board president, told him.
“It’s just a joy to be following in Mary’s footsteps,” Bryant said.
Jennifer Reeger is a staff writer for the Tribune-Review.