PITTSBURGH — A yo-yo led Erik Wiesemann to a discovery that would change the course of his life and help countless Pittsburghers.
The 47-year-old South Side resident is currently a kindergarten teacher at Baker Elementary School in Upper St. Clair. Back when he was teaching third-graders, a student one day brought in a yo-yo he had received as a birthday present. Over the weekend, Wiesemann learned some yo-yo tricks and mesmerized his students with his newfound skills. He saw the interest in yo-yo technique and subsequently founded Baker's All Wound Up Yo-Yo Club.
Part of the club's mission was to raise money for local and global nonprofits. Through All Wound Up, Baker students have given more than $1,000 to the Children's Institute of Pittsburgh and fundraised for international causes such as wells being dug in Africa. They also donated to Blankets Over Pittsburgh, a local nonprofit that provides supplies for the homeless. That's how Wiesemann got connected with its founder, Jack Brumbaugh.
Brumbaugh invited Wiesemann out to see how his donations were being used to aid Pittsburgh's homeless population, and he immediately noticed something that troubled him: Very few of them had access to a source of light for when the sun went down.
"Our homeless Pittsburgh neighbors were out there basically in the dark," Wiesemann said. "That's a rough way to live."
He recognized that those folks deserved "light, dignity and safety." He did some research, began rounding up some lights and started delivering them to homeless people around the Steel City. His humble endeavor is now a full-fledged nonprofit called Light in My City, which is a mostly one-man operation except for the occasional help he gets from his 20-year-old son, Evan.
"I've always said that we're called to love our neighbors," Wiesemann said. "These neighbors happen to live in a structure different than ours, still in the same city. This is the city of Mister Rogers where we ask, won't you be my neighbor? And they are our neighbors."
He mainly disseminates LuminAID lanterns that store solar energy during the day that the homeless can harness at night. They're portable, weatherproof and many also come equipped with solar-powered chargers. Wiesemann said that many homeless people carry government-issued phones that come in handy when they need to, say, contact a case worker or housing coordinator.
In addition to LuminAID, Wiesemann also doles out emergency solar crank radios from camping/survivalist company FosPower and tactical flashlights from LED product purveyor GearLight. On one recent delivery in late June, he said he handed out 15 lanterns, 15 radios and 15 flashlights.
"It's been such a blessing to meet so many amazing people," he said. "There are so many different stories on the streets of why people are there. A lot of times, homeless people are stereotyped. ... But I've met wonderful, wonderful people out there.
"They often feel forgotten. When you show up with a lantern new in the box, they almost never get anything new. Their faces light up brighter than the lantern in the box. It's nice to see them smile."
That's certainly been the case for Brandon, a 45-year-old who has been living on the streets off and on for 27 years. The ability to see at night is not something he takes for granted.
"Imagine not being able to see if you have to pee or you're thirsty and don't have a light," he said. "Just think about being in a normal, real-life situation. You want your drink and you wake up and you don't have a light, you're screwed. Trust me, it ain't easy."
He is beyond grateful for Wiesemann and his work with the city's homeless population: "They're amazing, especially Erik. He helped me survive and gives me hope. I don't have a lot of friends or people to call. Sometimes, he's my only friend. I'm very appreciative of him."
Light in My City is totally dependent on donations to continue serving those in need. Wiesemann doesn't take a salary, and whatever money he takes in goes directly into buying more lanterns or supplies. He has received support from some local businesses, like Diamonds Direct, a North Carolina-based diamond importer that opened its first Pittsburgh branch in March.
Diamonds Direct is still getting to know Pittsburgh and is actively seeking out philanthropic partners such as Light in My City, according to regional marketing manager Nicole Rubino. She said that Wiesemann reached out to them and it became quickly apparent that he was "kind of your hometown hero" and the type of person and organization Diamonds Direct wanted to support. It recently donated $1,000 to Light in My City, enough for the purchase of 50 LuminAID lanterns.
"He looked at what the needs of the community were and actioned something," Rubino said. "So much of what Light in My City stands for, it was a natural progression for us to be able to give back to it."
Wiesemann has seen the direct impact that even a single light source can have on a homeless person. He mentioned one such man who used a Light in My City lantern to study for trucking school. He completed that training and is now on the road and off the streets.
Stories like that are exactly why Wiesemann is so passionate about continuing Light in My City. He needs the homeless to know that there is always someone out there who sees them and wants to help.
"They are loved," he said. "Sometimes it might not feel like it, but that can be true whether you're living on the street or in the house. But they are loved, and cared about."
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