Packing bags and giving back with Duq alumni non-profit

Courtesy of Dream Start Foundation Spencer Marinch, co-founder of the Dream Start Foundation, stands with one of the many families that attended the backpack event

by Mary Liz Flavin | news editor

Jan. 20, 2022

Standing outside Status Grooming in East Liberty in 2020, Spencer Marnich watched as youngsters filed in and out of the storefront with free, freshly clipped hair just in time for the school year. Inspired by Status Grooming’s desire to help students in need, Marnich approached Duquesne alumni Jennifer Marfisi and Cole Barefoot with an idea. Together, Marnich said, the three would distribute backpacks filled with notebooks, pencils, water bottles and other essential school supplies for underprivileged students. 

Their first event was such a success that Marnich, Marfisi and Barefoot decided that they should turn this one-time instance into a non-profit organization that would help kids reach their full educational potential. Thus, the Dream Start Foundation was born.

“It really is a feel-good moment, for me personally being at the events and seeing these kids who have never really had stuff for themselves. Seeing them pick out what color backpack they want, seeing their faces when you give them these things is an amazing feeling,” Barefoot said. 

In 2021 another backpack drive was held in which t-shirts from Benny Snell and the rest of the Steelers were donated for the event as well as hot food to give out to families. Other partners donated different items to help make the backpack drive as large a success as the last one. 

The success didn’t go unnoticed; Mayor Ed Gainey and Mel Hubbard invited the Dream Start Foundation to work with the Pittsburgh Food Bank to help with the annual turkey drive that was hosted this past fall. 

“It’s really exciting. We gave out turkey and fixing as representatives for the mayor and then Mr. Gainey and Mr. Hubbard hosted their own turkey drive a few weeks later,” Marfisi said. “Spencer and a few of our volunteers were there, and they gave out about 1,000 turkeys to families in the community.”

Large partnerships like these have helped the Dream Start Foundation grow and be able to help more people in the Pittsburgh area. 

Marfisi attributes her ability to help in the community with many of the experiences she was a part of as a student at Duquesne. Prior to becoming an educator, she was both the service chair and later on became the president of the Student Education Association at Duquesne. 

“That allowed me opportunities to see the need in the community and organize events to help students, families and people in the Pittsburgh community. Like the backpack initiative, collecting non-perishable food items for different school districts,” Marfisi said, “Being at Duquesne allowed me to see a different type of need in the Pittsburgh community.” 

Both Marfisi and Marnich are educators with Marfisi currently working as a fifth grade teacher and Marnich as a substitute teacher; their first-hand experience and background allows them to address the needs of kids in the Pittsburgh education system. 

Barefoot is currently studying PR and advertising at Point Park University, but he said growing up with his father as an elementary principal, he frequently heard stories. 

“Whenever Spencer and Jen approached me with the idea, I’ve always seen those needs so let me bring what I have to the table. I handle the business side of things whereas Jen and Spencer were the vision of Dream Start,” Barefoot said. 

As a newer organization, Marfisi and Barefoot find that although there have been barriers with the pandemic and other issues, that doesn’t stop them from achieving their goals. In addition, the foundation is working on their 501(c)(3) status that officially recognizes their organization in order for them to provide volunteer hours. 

“I think it’s given us an edge being so new, so many other companies have had to adapt where as we are able to just set things up,” Barefoot said, “we were founded during the pandemic so we are already able to adapt to all the procedures into our core from the beginning.” 

Looking toward the future the foundation is hoping to host another backpack drive in either late spring or early summer. In addition they are working on a virtual coloring contest where kids would be able to submit drawings with a specific theme and the winner would get a prize in return. This would be run through their social media pages. 

Additionally, the foundation is hoping to implement a mentorship program where well respected adults in the community help kids understand the impact of being successful in school and present themselves as a role model for what the kids might want to be in the future. 

“I think the passion all three of us have in our goal and mission, it’s one of the biggest things that keeps me going,” Marfisi said. “We’ve faced challenges as a group of young people in the time of ovid. We came together to tackle a problem and that’s the energy we’ve kept regarding the problems we’ve faced. It’s the passion for us.”