It was a gloomy day. The sky was gray and there was a light drizzle outside the coffee shop. The normal common noises of people talking and mechanized coffee makers filled the small area. Jessica Schmid, the Braddock Youth Project’s Program Coordinator was drinking her coffee and answering emails in the typical fashion for a person with such a long job title and excessive pressing occupational responsibilities. Sharvel Pulliam, the subject of this story, was sitting beside me drinking his Frappuccino.
We are all members of the Braddock Youth Project, a community-based program built and maintained to provide work knowledge and skills to Braddock youth. I am the rookie of the three with only a few months of BYP under my belt. Jessi, as she is affectionately called, has been a part of the BYP for three years. But Sharvel, the youngest of us, claims seniority. He has been in the program for four years.
“Big things come in small packages” is the cliché that is especially true of Sharvel. It is hard to fathom how so much awesome could come from someone so young. Gifted, motivated, enthusiastic, a boy-man with a million great ideas: Sharvel exudes a sense of purpose and direction that is contagious. This story is a glimpse into this young man, his memories, accomplishments and goals—an interview with Sharvel Pulliam.
Sharvel moved away from Erie Pennsylvania 4 years ago but you wouldn’t know it just by talking to him. It’s hard to believe that he hadn’t lived in Braddock all his life. It was just the vibe he gave off. The amount of love he had for the community, for the people, for the BYP: it made it seem like he belonged here. It was like Dario Soto, a BYP staff member and resident of Braddock, said: “Sharvel is an honorary resident of Braddock.”
It was like he had seen the challenges, the losses, and the triumphs and had found meaningful work to do and had started doing that work long before most people thought about serving their community. He started young. When Sharvel started working at the Braddock Youth Project he was the only 8th grader that they had in the program.
“I started in 2009,” he expressed proudly. “I remember one of the first times I rode on the bus was because of BYP.”
Sharvel’s biggest reason for joining the program at first was to be independent. “I really wanted to do something for myself, because I was dependent on my mom. So I really wanted to have a job to show her that I can stand on my own two feet.”
It takes a lot of maturity to want to undertake that kind of responsibility from so young. But that is the type of person you see when you look at Sharvel: a mature responsible person ready and willing to take on challenges. It is what has marked his career at BYP. But an acceptance and mad rush to challenges doesn’t erase fear. For Sharvel, he had to overcome the hard parts.
“The interview was kind of a scary experience,” he recalls. “It was my first time dressing up. There were a lot of kids there. When we first walked in me and mom sat at the far end corner.”
The day is still vivid in Sharvel’s mind. His eyes sparkled a little and a wide smile rose on his face as he visualized the events of that day. “I remember all the games they had us play. How we had to show teamwork.”
Sharvel got accepted that summer to BYP. And he also got accepted into the following school year program because he made such a great impression. And then the summer after that. And the school year after that. Before he knew it he had become a veteran of BYP and had racked up a few things to be proud of.
“The thing I am most proud of is doing two presentations at Pitt,” he explained talking about the presentations he did for a room full of college students at the University of Pittsburgh. “I was really grateful that I got a chance to do it. I got a chance to talk in front of college students and I was still in middle school.”
“Grad students too,” chimed Jessica booming with pride. It was hard not to be awed by the idea of it, a kid, not too far out of elementary school, presenting to a room full of adults.
“Wow,” I said, not being able to comprehend the magnitude of something like that. “What was your presentation about?”
“One was about the gas and air quality in Braddock,” he explained. “We talked about how we learned about it and what we think about it now that we’ve learned it.”
They weren’t the only ones that day, however. There was also a group called The Krunk Movement, who did a rap performance. After seeing their performance, Sharvel wished they had a more creative edge to theirs. “We said ‘man, we should have rapped’ so that ours would have been more interesting. They got up there and did these hip hop songs and rap and we came with PowerPoints and graphs.” We all laughed. “But it was definitely a good experience,” he concluded.
“How did it feel being up there in front of all those people?” I asked curious about how he internally handled such a high-pressure experience.
“I was nervous. It was a lot of people!” Sharvel expressed with his usual enthusiasm.
“Probably between 75 and 100 people in the room,” said Jessi giving a real number to the room of people.
I tried to take that number in. At such a young age I couldn’t imagine speaking in front of grown adults, teaching them something they didn’t already know, especially 100 of them. It was an amazing challenge and achievement for a young person.
“And it was mostly all girls,” he continued with a wide-eyed expression. “I remember one time there was only one dude in the class. It was definitely kind of scary, but after hearing everyone clapping you felt like you did a good job.”
“What was your second greatest accomplishment?” I asked.
“My second greatest accomplishment had to be interviewing Gisele Fetterman.” Gisele Fetterman is the wife of the mayor of Braddock, John Fetterman. Sharvel wanted to write a story about her and all the things that she has done for the community, knowing that her role may sometimes go unnoticed. The article was cleverly named “The First Lady of Braddock.”
“I think that was my first time meeting her, and I was interviewing her,” he continued. “ And I felt like a really big reporter, interviewing the mayor’s wife. It was a fun experience. She brought us cookies. The cookies were good. They were definitely good.” Sharvel had a tendency to say definitely a lot. If he had a signature phrase, that would be it. He often used it to add emphasis to whatever he was expressing. The word itself shows commitment to something. And that is the type of guy Sharvel is: commitment oriented.
“And Carl,” said Jessi.
“Yeah,” Sharvel agreed, “she brought her son Carl too. Even after the interview she sat and we talked about stuff. It was a good meeting. Now I see her in Braddock and I say hello and we talk for a second.” Sharvel beamed.
“What was cool about that project,” said Jessi pridefully, “from start to finish every little piece along the way, from coming up with the idea to what he wanted to do the story on and who he wanted to interview was all Sharvel’s. There was nobody else involved in it at all. I think that was the first story for the Watz Up Doc that he did and he came up with the idea, came up with the questions; he transcribed it, wrote the story; then he edited the story, and then we made it into the cover story.”
“There was this big gap because I had basketball,” said Sharvel recalling the moment not too long ago. “We started off the idea and we started to plan and stuff and then there was a three-month break. When I got back, we did the questions and the interview. And then we typed it.”
“The thing was too,” added Jessi, “after we did the interview, Sharvel would come in every day and he would just start transcribing. He would transcribe through break time until it got to homework time. He just came in every day and worked on it.” You could see the kind of pride Jessi exhibited when she talked about Sharvel’s work ethic. This was typical of people who interacted with him.
The truth is, I had already known about Sharvel long before I met him. I was told by my predecessor Kimmy, the previous media coordinator, that he would be the person I could call upon to do great work and be excited about it. That level of dedication is typical of Sharvel. His dedication is always accompanied by almost laser focus. It is beautiful to see him engrossed in a project.
“I think I liked that part,” he said with his usual wide mouth smile. “I would listen to the interview and then write that question down. I was in the zone. I had my headphones on and everything. And Jessi would help me revise,” he expressed turning to Jessi thankfully. “[Jessi] would tell me to add some extra details about how she was sitting, and how she answered questions. I liked that part of the process.”
“Another thing we did at the beginning,” said Jessi talking directly to Sharvel, “before we came up with the idea of who you wanted to interview, we looked up different types of interviews and you really wanted to do one that was not just question and answer. You really wanted to describe the scene so we were working on how to take the interview from direct transcription form and put it into a form that was more narrative.”
“And that’s really difficult to do. That is the same thing you did when you did Dario’s story,” I said alluding to a profile story he did this school year. Sharvel put a whole lot of work into interviewing Dario Soto, a former BYP youth, who had climbed the ladder to being the gardening coordinator for the school year.
“I just like that type of interview,” Sharvel responded modestly.
“It reads better,” said Jessi. “It’s more interesting because you get the I’s behind it too. You’re describing what you saw and what the setting was.”
“Do you have a third great accomplishment,” I asked eager to hear if it was what I thought it was.
“The third one, I had to say the videos we made.”
“I hoped you’d say that,” I said happily. “Which videos specifically? I remember you did a really cool one with Dario.”
“Yeah, that was the first one. The day before we were supposed to start shooting we didn’t have any script for it. We wrote the script in one day.” Sharvel expressed this with pride. It was something he did that he didn’t think he could do and it surprised him so much that it never left his mind. It is great when accomplishments have such a powerful and lasting impact on a person. His first video taught him that anything was possible.
He paused trying to remember his other video accomplishments. “Then there was the fisherman video,” he continued remembering his other favorite video projects. “It was a three-man crew. It was just me and Dorian on the camera. And the next video was the basketball video.”
“Tell me about the basketball video,” I asked pensively. This was the one I was waiting on specifically. “You did that entirely by yourself,” I continued. “You planned it and you got everything set up. What was that like for you?”
“I remember at basketball practice,” said Sharvel revealing his inspiration for the story. “We’d be running laps and you tried not to think about how many laps you ran and you tried to put your mind someplace else. We used to run laps for conditioning. I always had this idea in my head about a basketball movie or video. And then when you said we had to do our own independent project I thought to myself that I always wanted to do this. So I decided to do it and I wanted to have no talking in it, just music. I didn’t want it to be straightforward. I wanted people to think about it. I wanted it to be a sad story and at the end you cheer for the good guy.”
I smiled at the description. “How do you feel about it now?”
“Even though it doesn’t have a million views, I was just happy that it was accomplished. It was something I thought about at practice and I was glad I could just go somewhere and have my ideas come true at the Braddock Youth Project. I just feel like I accomplished a great film. Everyone said they liked it.” Sharvel looked really happy when he said this. The video itself was extremely creative and unique, a blend of sound clips, music, and artistic shots. I almost lost my mind when I first saw “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Basketball.”
You did a great job,” I said. “Kimmy also said she loved it,” I added, referring to my predecessor. “Its awesome.”
“Everyone loved it!” added Jessi.
“I remember the first time I met Kimmy for media,” Sharvel recalled fondly. “She taught us everything from computers to video. She was a really good teacher if you were just starting out.”
“Tell me more about those early days,” I said.
“My first year I didn’t really know anybody at the BYP. But by the third day I knew ten people. They were all friendly. We would sit around and come up with ideas about what the group would be like next week and the week after that. But when I became an intern, the friendship became more real. I think after going to Seven Springs, that intern group developed a stronger bond and I think that it carried for many years. I think the friendships are definitely one of the best things about BYP. Everyone just comes in and everyone supports what another person does.”
Sharvel was referring to a two-day overnight trip the BYP interns went on to Seven Springs, a resort located a few hours outside of Pittsburgh. To Sharvel, that trip created a lasting bond with his group and gave him the opportunity to build strong friendships.
“You think there are a lot of people that wind up being friends at BYP that would not be friends at school?” Jessi asked, thinking of the interesting mix of youth that come to work at BYP.
“I definitely agree with that,” Sharvel said quickly. “It’s like so many different kinds of people but when they get to BYP they join together and come up with fascinating things.”
“It’s funny because I am so used to seeing these guys with one another,” continued Jessi. “Everyone has such a good relationship I just assume that everybody is friends. It took me a little while to realize that at school you might have different friends.”
“I think that the tasks we have definitely make the bonds we have with one another stronger,” said Sharvel. “But that one year, last year, was definitely the strongest bond.”
“What do you want to do when you grow up?” I asked changing the subject a little.
“It changes every month,” Sharvel joked.
“Mine too,” said Jessi in agreement, smiling.
“I think I got two options,” continued Sharvel. “I want to get into business or I want to still do the film and media thing.”
“What made you decide business?” I asked.
“I always liked the guys in New York in the suits and nice cars,” Sharvel said with a large smile. “ I just really like the idea of wearing a suit to work every day. I always liked that image.”
“You can bring that to any job,” I said playfully.
“Maybe, I’ll do it for summer,” Sharvel joked.
“What made you decide media and film?” I asked. “What made you want to do that?
“I just like TV and movies. When we went to Seven Springs in the summer, we talked to a guy named DJ Chevy and he said, ‘if you don’t know what you want to do for the rest of your life, pick one thing that you would do for free.’ And I think that I would definitely do that for free.”
“What are your favorite movies? What inspired this media love?”
“When I was younger we used to go to this dollar movie theater in the back of this mall,” said Sharvel recalling the old memory. “My mom took us when we were younger to see Titanic. I was super young, maybe 6. And you know that scene when the girl and guy was on the piece of wood?”
“Mhmm,” I said with a nod, remembering the iconic movie moment.
“And she is saying ‘I won’t let go?’” continued Sharvel. “My mom said I started crying. From a young age I knew what was going on, the emotions in the films. Every weekend we used to go to the dollar movie. I think its still there.”
“Was it at Century 3,” asked Jessi forgetting that Sharvel wasn’t from the Pittsburgh area.
“No it was in Erie Pennsylvania.”
“Oh yeah, right,” said Jessi with a chuckle.
“We always went to the dollar theater. We would go through the mall and mom would buy us a video game.”
“How did BYP help drive you towards the discovery of your career goals?” I asked.
“They would ask us what we wanted to be when we grew up. If you wanted to be a teacher you could pick BYP Jr. If you want to be a newspaper writer you could work on the newsletter. BYP always encourages you to do the best thing for you and your future. And the BYP gives you the tools you need to go on and get your education or go on and be ready for a future job. So it definitely drove me because it put me on the right track.”
I smiled. It definitely seemed like Sharvel was grateful to have the opportunity to work with the BYP and I knew for a fact that we were grateful to have him. “What was the most valuable skill you think you’ve learned?” I asked. “What skill do you see yourself using the most in the future?”
“I think the most important skills that I learned was how to contact people if I needed help and how I should go about getting answers to my questions,” said Sharvel openly. “They showed me how to talk in front of people and do a presentation. That was something valuable to learn. And I think that I will need that in the future.”
“Where do you want to go to school?” I asked, curious about his goals for college life.
“New York University. Or any school in New York,” said Sharvel.
“Why New York?” I asked. At Sharvel’s age I had no idea where I wanted to go to college so I wanted to know how he made that decision.
“Because of all of the opportunities,” he expressed.
“Where would you want to be after you finish school?” I asked.
“You want to be wearing the suit on Wall Street?” I asked playfully already knowing the answer.
“Wearing the suit on Wall Street,” he said with a smile. “Learning the stock market. Reading the newspaper at a deli.” Sharvel already had a detailed vision of where he wanted to go.
“You said you wanted to be a businessman or do stuff in media. You think you ever want to teach media?”
“No,” said Sharvel quickly. “I’m not good at teaching. I think I would be the one to say ‘you do this by pressing this and this.’”
“How to’s?” I asked jokingly.
“Yeah. How to’s,” he concurred, smiling.
“What are you looking forward to in the next few years?” I asked.
“I’m looking forward to graduating high school. Definitely graduating high school,” said Sharvel with his catch phrase emphasizer. “In the next few years I am looking forward to graduating BYP. Its going to be a sad moment but it’s also going to be another great accomplishment.”
“You think that you would ever come back and work for the BYP, as staff?”
“Yeah, I definitely had thoughts about that. Definitely for the summer. After looking at the route Dario took, I definitely think that anything in BYP is possible. We both came into BYP at the same year and we became interns the same year. Even though he was done with interning, he moved up to the staff position. It was the first time anyone ever did that. I was like ‘wow, this dude is a legend.’ I think he was just born a leader. I think his story should be told to future BYP members. There should be a big board showing his process.” We all laughed but we also took in every word. Sharvel was not the type of person to flatter without reason. He completely believed in the words he was saying.
“What are you looking forward to for the summer?” I asked.
“I’m looking forward to all the new people, all the returning people, all the new staff and all the new stuff we will be doing. I am excited about what you got planned for the summer. I feel like it will be more of a comfortable space to just come in and work. Definitely the activities you have planned makes me think its going to be a fun summer. I’m ready for the cook out and I hope we do the Seven Springs thing again. I’m ready for the events because more people show up during the summer.”
“What has been your experience working in Braddock and how does it feel to serve that community and why is it important to you?” I asked.
“My experience working in Braddock was a good experience. Definitely, my first thoughts of Braddock wasn’t really that good, because the first time I heard that I had an interview in Braddock I would tell people and they would say ‘you better be careful down there.’ But when I got to Braddock it wasn’t like any of the stories I heard or what was in the newspapers. It was welcoming and it was a good environment to create something. So my experience working in Braddock was a good one.”
“How did you feel serving the community?” I asked.
“I feel definitely like I am a part of the community. Dario said in my straight talk that I’m an official member of the Braddock community. I was very proud of that. I am definitely proud that I can say I work in Braddock at the BYP. People ask me, ‘where you work at?’ I tell them Braddock Youth Project. And they’re like ‘oh, for real? What you do there?’ And I tell them: ‘I do media and I write the newsletter sometimes.’ They’re like: ‘how old are you?’ ‘Seventeen,” I’d tell them. And they’re like: ‘how did you get that job?’”
We all laughed at the last line. Sharvel smiled and beamed with pride and I understood very well why he had gotten the job at BYP. He had gotten it because had gotten it because he wanted it.
But most importantly, he had gotten it because he was the man for the job.