Steve Purich nearly fell off the 15-foot rock ledge when he first discovered the natural stone cathedral that has become his personal refuge.
The circular collection of rock formations on his secluded Upper Yoder Township property inspired the 72-year-old retiree to create what is now known as the Tranquility Garden. The collection of sculptures and artifacts placed along idyllic paths transports visitors to different lands and different eras.
After 10 years creating it, Purich knew the garden had a greater purpose than his personal escape.
He has donated the sculptures to the Community Foundation for the Alleghenies and has opened the garden as a Community Foundation program.
“It would be sad if it’s just wasted on me,” Purich said. “Besides, I get a lot of joy out of meeting folks who enjoy it.”
There are Roman ruins re-created from what once were features of the First National Bank building in downtown Johnstown. There is the International Village of sculptures from London and Argentina. The Ancient Temple Ruins include artifacts personally selected by Liz Gilbert and Jose Nunez, subjects of the best-selling novel “Eat, Pray, Love.”
“It is spiritual,” Purich said near the gateway to his Sanctuary alcove. “It is like an outdoor museum with a message.”
One of the garden’s first Community Foundation programs is dear to Purich’s heart.
The garden has been opened to Goodwill Industries of the Conemaugh Valley’s GoodFutures Mentoring Experience youths and their mentors.
“It is difficult to make a connection with these kids,” Purich said. “We can bring the kids into a different place. It is something they can’t experience anywhere else. It breaks the ice.”
Youths and their mentors come to the garden and practice photography and painting, explore nature or discuss history and philosophy represented by the sculptures, he said.
But most of all, the garden allows a mentor and youth to connect with each other.
“It turns all the noise off,” Purich said. “You can feel the silence.”
The GoodFutures Mentoring Experience is an extension of the Great Conemaugh Valley Intervention Plan, founded in 2009 by Purich and Mike Kane, executive director of the Community Foundation.
The mentoring initiative was propelled by a flurry of data showing that young people in the Johnstown area are more likely to come from low-income families, more likely to drop out of school and less likely to attend college than those in other communities.
GoodFutures has matched 35 mentors with youths ages 12 to 17, said Phyllis J. Bandstra, president and CEO of Goodwill Industries of the Conemaugh Valley.
“We have 40 more youth waiting for matches,” she said.
The Goodwill program is getting a boost from a national corporation. AT&T is donating $10,000 through the Community Foundation to support the mentoring program, announced Jim Penna, AT&T’s regional director for external affairs.
Penna said his prior positions as district director for former congressman Mark Critz and as a local news anchor helped him to understand the value of Goodwill, Community Foundation and the Tranquility Garden.
“This is a place where you can come and find yourself,” Penna said. “The mentoring program is about finding yourself.”
The contribution is part of AT&T Aspire, focused on helping to achieve higher rates of college- and career-ready high school graduates. Since 2008, the company has distributed $350 million.
“High school success and workforce readiness is a top priority for AT&T,” Penna said. “This initiative is an excellent example of the private sector teaming up with nonprofit organizations to help at-risk youth in our community.”
More information about becoming a mentor is available by contacting youth coordinator Cindy O’Connor at 536-3536, ext. 304, or by email, coconnor@good willjohnstown.org.
Randy Griffith is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/photogriffer57.