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Photo of binoculars overlooking downtown Pittsburgh, Pa. Knob says "Turn to Clear Vision"

Community volunteers celebrated for hard work, vision

Above: “Pittsburgh” by Peter Miller, via Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Mon Valley Initiative honored local groups and organizations this month with its 2020 regional and community partner awards.

Called “Beyond 2020,” the award ceremony — usually held in conjunction with a banquet — was held as a virtual, online event due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Mon Valley Initiative was born out of crisis, so we’re used to being resilient, but 2020 has tested everyone at levels few of us could have imagined,” said Laura R. Zinski, MVI chief executive officer.

“In a year of challenges unlike any of us have ever faced, we’re happy to be celebrating the hard work of so many of our neighbors in the Mon Valley,” she said. “Like you, I’m looking beyond 2020 to the days—hopefully not far away—when we can again gather safely in person.”

The theme of this year’s event was “Beyond 2020,” and it took as its motto a quote from President John F. Kennedy: “Those who look only to the past or the present are certain to miss the future.”

Presenting sponsors of this year’s event were Mistick Construction Co. and DRS of Greater Pittsburgh.

Video interviews with each of the award winners may be viewed on YouTube. Biographies of the award winners, and photos, follow.

Sen. H. John Heinz III Award for Community Service

Macy Kisilinsky

Given to an individual for outstanding service and diligent efforts to promote and further the resurgence of the Mon Valley throughout our region and state.

Macy Kisilinsky calls himself “an affordable housing champion.” A life-long resident of Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill South neighborhood, Kisilinsky has more than 20 years’ experience developing high-quality residential and mixed-use properties, often in blighted or struggling neighborhoods bypassed by other developers.

He is vice president of originations at Alliant Capital, where he has been responsible for leveraging low-income housing tax credits to create new development on brownfield sites in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Michigan and New Jersey. Prior to joining Alliant, he worked with the National Equity Fund and at PNC Bank.

In 2018, Laura R. Zinski, MVI’s chief executive officer, reached out to Kisilinsky to get advice for financing the Clairton Inn project and other residential properties in the MVI portfolio. That first meeting grew into regular weekly calls with MVI’s real-estate team, where Kisilinsky has generously shared his experience and provided hundreds of hours of free expert advice and guidance, Zinski says.

Kisilinsky has been able to offer his perspective from the investor side of a tax-credit transaction, which has been invaluable to MVI, especially during a year when financing for construction was complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic and a depressed economy. “His guidance is helping to ensure that MVI’s real estate portfolio remains an important community asset across the Mon Valley,” Zinski says.

Regional Partnership Award

Neighborhood Legal Services Association of Pittsburgh

Given to an organization working in partnership with Mon Valley Initiative on a project, program or issue for the betterment of the valley.

For more than 50 years, Neighborhood Legal Services Association of Pittsburgh has provided free assistance to residents of Western Pennsylvania who require free legal help to navigate employment law, real-estate law, bankruptcies, landlord-tenant disputes, elder law, veterans’ benefits, consumer disputes and many other problems.

Founded in 1966 by 14 local attorneys, NLS now has offices in Pittsburgh as well as Beaver, Butler and Lawrence counties. Since its founding NLS has served more than 1.1 million clients.

Edward Van Stevenson Jr. (above) currently serves as executive director of NLS. Stevenson was hired by the founding executive director, R. Stanton Wettick Jr., who later became an Allegheny County judge, and is only the fifth executive director of NLS in its history. Of more than two dozen attorneys at NLS, the average length of service is more than 25 years.

In the early 1970s, government support for civil legal aid societies such as NLS diminished, forcing the agency to begin fundraising and asking local attorneys to donate their time and serve clients on a pro bono basis. NLS created a toll-free telephone helpline to provide free service and advice by phone, and in recent years, has launched a number of innovative programs, including its Medical-Legal Collaborative for Patients, Veterans Justice Project and Legal Literacy community outreach effort.

For two decades, NLS has partnered with MVI’s Workforce Development & Financial Coaching program to teach classes on employment law and expungement of minor criminal offenses that can present a barrier to people attempting to re-enter the workforce and rebuild their careers.

Community Partner Awards

Greater Valley Community Services
Nominated by Braddock Economic Development Corp.

Greater Valley Community Services was founded in North Braddock in 2009 to provide supportive services to families and children, especially those in foster care, but also including in-home crisis intervention for parents and children who face trauma, conflict and other challenges.

Since its move to the former Salvation Army space on Holland Avenue in Braddock, Greater Valley has added new community-based programs aimed at health, wellness and education of a broader group of people in the surrounding Woodland Hills area.

“Our team of staff members and collaborative programs are ready to help meet the needs of the community, no matter what the age or background,” says Jacqueline Smith, Greater Valley executive director. “When it comes to community services, we believe that includes children and the elderly. We value quality programs and service above anything else.”

The group’s mission is to strengthen, educate and empower children and families through collaboration and resources while promoting safety, growth and strong community.

With the move to Holland Avenue, Greater Valley is now providing additional community outreach programming it calls “SPACE” — “Supportive Programs Affording Collaborative Engagement.”

Jeff Bloom, Bloom Brew
Nominated by Downtown West Newton Inc.

Jeff Bloom came to West Newton in 2013 with a dream of starting his own microbrewery. That dream blossomed and grew into Bloom Brew.

Today, Bloom Brew has become a thriving regional attraction of its own. The family owned microbrewery on the banks of the Youghiogheny River offers 24 beers on tap and regularly hosts food trucks, live music and outdoor events under a 50-seat pavilion.

In 2014, shortly after creating Bloom Brew, Bloom discovered Downtown West Newton Inc. and felt he could be of help. As time went by, Bloom began attending DWNI’s monthly meetings to get a feel for the organization.

It was the start of a great relationship between a small business and the group, says DWNI’s Aaron Nelson. Bloom eventually joined DWNI and soon became a board member. In 2016, he proposed hosting a small beer festival at Simeral Square, a park owned by DWNI. Bloom felt it would be a good way for Downtown West Newton Inc. to both raise some funds and network with younger people in the West Newton area.

East Pittsburgh Basketball Clinic
Nominated by East Pittsburgh Economic Development Corp.

The 2018 fatal shooting of 17-year-old Antwon Rose II by an East Pittsburgh police officer exposed divisions in the community and left residents grieving, angry and frustrated.

It also galvanized a response from several East Pittsburgh-area residents who wanted to reach out to younger people, provide them with a constructive outlet and a voice, and begin the healing process.

In February 2019, Tamara Boyd, Deacon Thomas Moore and Bishop Arthur Brown presented a proposal to East Pittsburgh borough council for the creation of a basketball clinic at the recreation center. Their goal was to give young people ages 6 to 17 a safe place to interact with one another and with older adults. Following their presentation, Council Member Earnest Frazier joined their cause.

Beginning that summer, the basketball clinic met every Saturday for two sessions lasting 45 minutes each at the courts behind the rec center. More than 30 kids joined the clinic that first year, including some who had never played basketball before. Practices included mentoring from coaches. Each session concluded with a chance for participants to reflect on the day’s activities and often with a meal provided by one of the families.

“In order for the clinic to support the suppression of crime we have to not only provide an alternative for youth to avoid criminal activity, but must also instill in them virtues that support life,” Boyd says.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many formal activities were curtailed during the 2020 season, but the clinic is expected to resume in June 2021.

Friends of the Monessen Library
Nominated by Monessen Community Development Corp.

For more than 30 years, the Friends of the Monessen Library have been helping to support the Monessen Public Library and its board of directors to fill gaps in fundraising and programming.

Their mission is to “encourage the interest in, and the expansion of, the resources, equipment and physical facilities of the Monessen library, and to allow for participation by interested parties in library-related events such as programs and fundraising projects.”

The group’s signature event—and one of Monessen’s most-anticipated activities each year—is the annual Friends of the Library Luncheon. The luncheon includes a guest speaker and a buffet meal. Attendees decorate their tables based on a theme and then sell tickets to the seats at their tables.

This unique event is well-attended and enjoyed by people from throughout the Mid-Mon Valley. Last year’s luncheon was called “Down Memory Lane” and featured a 1970s disco-music theme, with attendees sporting vintage clothing and Monessen memorabilia.

The organization is currently recruiting new members. Volunteers do not have to reside within the city of Monessen and a spokesperson says they would be “thrilled” to have new members with fresh ideas: “Many of our members are getting older and we want to keep our mission alive.” The Friends of the Library are looking for help from anyone with a sincere interest in the well-being of Monessen and its community resources.

Gabriele D’Annunzio Society (Pitcairn Italian Club)
Nominated by Pitcairn Community Renaissance, Inc.

The Gabriele D’Annunzio Society (Pitcairn Italian Club) celebrated its 100th anniversary in June 2020 and has been an important part of life in the borough since its founding.

Named for an Italian poet, playwright, journalist and soldier, the society has always given back to the borough by sponsoring local sports teams, donating time to worthy causes and raising money for area charities.

The current officers of the society are third- and fourth-generation members who are bringing new energy to the club’s activities and have brought back some old traditions, such as having Santa Claus present each Christmas to provide toys to local children.

Although some in-person events have had to be curtailed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the society has persevered and in the spring, just after the lockdown left many people unemployed, officers sent a letter to each of the society’s members, thanking them for their support, wishing them well and including a Giant Eagle grocery gift card to help those families who were struggling.

The society’s clubhouse on Eighth Street has recently been renovated and updated. For its years of dedication to the borough of Pitcairn and their dedication to the community’s future, Pitcairn Community Renaissance voted to recognize the Gabriele D’Annunzio Society (Pitcairn Italian Club) and officers Anthony Pizzuto, Nick Pizzuto, Brandon Gajdos, John Michael Dominick and Justin Preece.

Leland Scales
Nominated by Swissvale Economic Development Corp.

(Submitted photo courtesy 412 Food Rescue)

Leland Scales was born in Swissvale and moved away for several years as he attended the University of Central Florida.

When he returned, he was discouraged to find what he calls a “negative energy” in his old neighborhood.

Scales decided to try to create something positive to counteract the bad news and launched the Swissvale Community Action Committee as a Facebook group. The group had one main rule: You can discuss any problem you want, but make sure you follow up your complaint with a positive solution.

While earning his master’s degree in food studies at Chatham University, Scales decided to put his research into action in Swissvale. In 2014, he created the Swissvale Community Garden to both beautify one neighborhood and provide free, healthy fresh produce to his neighbors.

The garden is now managed and operated by community volunteers, who grow various flowers, herbs and vegetables. Produce is donated to local food pantries and sold at the Swissvale farmer’s market. An “edible garden tour” in Swissvale raised money to support the community garden and attracted hundreds of visitors to the borough.

Scales is actively involved with several food ministries at Union Baptist Church in Swissvale as well as Reach Up Pittsburgh, and recently joined 412 Food Rescue as a food recovery and field operations associate.

Paul Gamrat
Nominated by Turtle Creek Development Corp.

Paul Gamrat is a life-long resident of the Mon Valley who grew up in North Braddock and taught in Wilkinsburg Public Schools for 34 years, retiring in 2010.

Following his retirement, Gamrat became increasingly involved in local events, volunteering to pick up litter in the Blackridge area of Wilkinsburg and Churchill, working with the borough’s recreation board to plan an annual community day and helping at polling places during elections.

“My wife and I have been committed to community service since we moved to Churchill,” Gamrat says. “We began by taking litter walks with our children, then started taking care of the entrance signs in our neighborhood. I started organizing different community projects in the borough. We conduct monthly litter pickups at the parkway entrances and exits, and other high-traffic areas.”

One of Gamrat’s biggest projects to-date has been reorganization and maintenance of Churchill’s “Common Garden,” located at the corner of Beulah and Churchill roads. “I’ve also undertaken a project to plant trees throughout the borough.”

In 2017, Gamrat was appointed acting mayor of Churchill and was elected to a full term later that year. Last year, he joined with more than 60 other elected officials in Allegheny County to urge local, state and federal authorities to do more to enforce air quality rules.

During his time as a Churchill volunteer and now mayor, he has been a friend and partner with neighboring Turtle Creek Borough, says Dale J. Bizub, a member of Turtle Creek Development Corp.

“I’ve known Paul for several decades,” Bizub says. “Knowing someone from a young age until a not-so-young age is very telling. One of our CDC members also has worked with him on community projects as he lives in Churchill. Paul has demonstrated he has a similar commitment to our community as TCDC does. He leads by example. TCDC unanimously voted to recognize him and his efforts.”

Mon Valley Initiative