During their formative years in Bethel Park, Jerrel Gilliam and his brothers had the best of role models.
“My parents were very committed to helping people who were less fortunate. We grew up around that, with people staying at our house when they were in transition, and my mother and dad taking us to visit people when they were sick,” he recalled. “We grew up with that kind of example in front of us, which I’m really grateful for.”
He continues to follow what his mother, Alma, and father – the late Rev. James Gilliam, longtime pastor of Shiloh Church in South Park – taught him as executive director of Light of Life Rescue Mission in Pittsburgh’s North Side. He was named to the position in May after having the title on an interim basis.
“After a national search, we realized that our new executive director had been serving the organization since he was a child,” said Glenn Graner, chairman of the Christian nonprofit’s board of directors. “He’s the perfect candidate for driving what our organization is working to achieve: a place where life transformation can take place for even the most desperate individual.”
As youngsters, Jerrel and his brothers – Gralan, Javan and the late Armen, who later played in the National Basketball Association for 13 years – accompanied their parents to lend their assistance to various efforts to help others, including visits to Light of Life.
Starting by volunteering with the organization, Jerrel eventually worked as program coordinator, program officer, director of programs and director of discipleship prior to being named interim executive director last year.
He succeeds Craig Schweiger, who was promoted to chief executive officer and will focus his efforts on a capital campaign to expand Light of Life’s ability to offer services. The organization is renovating a three-story schoolhouse on Ridge Avenue, near Community College of Allegheny County’s Allegheny Campus, and constructing a new building between Madison Avenue and Voeghtly Street, near Veterans Bridge.
“One of the things we’re really excited about is that on the third floor, we are having our first emergency shelter for women and children,” Gilliam said about the latter. “Not only in our area but across the country, the fastest-growing segment of the population of homelessness in women and children.”
He is emphasizing Light of Life’s outreach program.
“With the opioid crisis, we’re having younger and younger people on the street. What we’re finding is that not everyone is not coming to the doors, not even for meals, anymore. Some of them are staying under bridges, or they’re out in the community,” Gilliam said.
“So we’ve developed an outreach strategy and begun actually going out and looking for people, and trying to develop relationships. That’s where we see our future, not so much expanding our number of beds on the North Side but expanding our influence and touch of homeless by going to where they are.”
Light of Life also is providing continuum of care, to help anyone who needs assistance.
“Some people don’t necessarily have an addiction issue, but they’ve lost their home. They lost their job or went through a divorce, so they don’t have a place to stay,” Gilliam said. “Those people do not require a long-term program, and so we’ve created programs so they can stay with us as short as five days all the way up to two years.”
Among them is a housing and employment program.
“They just need a place to call their own, a place to have an address so they can apply for jobs and somebody can call them,” Gilliam said. “That’s been successful in helping people get back on their feet quickly if they don’t have an addiction history.”
A Bethel Park High School graduate, Gilliam earned his bachelor’s degree in religion and music from Arizona College of the Bible. He and his wife, Shannah, live in Forest Hills and have seven adult children.
“We just like bringing hope to people,” he said about Light of Life Rescue Mission, which was established in 1952. “A lot of times, if they’ve been chronically homeless or in addiction for a long time, they begin to lose hope. They feel like they don’t have any other options.
“And so what we like to say is that God gives us the option of another chance. We want to be the hands and feet of Jesus to help people find a second chance and walk alongside them.”
For more information, visit www.lightoflife.org.