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Local groups, volunteers honored at MVI awards ceremony

Local volunteers, groups and businesses were honored Oct. 21 for their efforts to revitalize the communities of the Mon Valley.

During a ceremony streamed online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Mon Valley Initiative presented awards to development and employment partners, as well as its “community partner awards” for 2021.

A regional community development corporation that provides housing counseling, real estate development and community outreach, and workforce readiness programs in three counties in western Pennsylvania, MVI and its member groups have been presenting the awards each fall since 1990.

John Botti, president of Disaster Restoration Services of Greater Pittsburgh, was presented with the U.S. Sen. H. John Heinz III Award for Community Service; Peoples Gas was presented with MVI’s Regional Partnership Award; and Aerotek Inc., a nationwide employment staffing firm with an office in Wilkins Township, was named the Employer Partner of the Year.

“I’m proud that these are the kinds of people that we have in this region,” said Mary Carol Kennedy of East Pittsburgh, who chairs the MVI board. “I always walk away from this awards ceremony feeling so much better about mankind, and particularly because I live in the Mon Valley. I want to thank the awardees for the work they do, and for how they represent their communities.”

This is the second year in a row that the awards ceremony — traditionally held as a banquet — was restricted to virtual attendance only.

“I certainly hope next year we’re together in person so that we can have more fun,” said Joe Flynn, vice-chair of the MVI board, who delivered the closing remarks and encouraged all viewers to get their COVID-19 vaccinations.

Groups and individuals honored with community partner awards included Bethlehem Baptist Church, McKeesport; Clairton Family Center; the Swissvale Shade Tree Advisory Committee; retired Turtle Creek police Chief Dale Kraeer; Ollie Hill of the West Newton, Pa., Lions Club; and Wilmerding Community Center.

You can watch the awards ceremony here. Biographies of the award winners follow.

Sen. H. John Heinz III Award for Community Service

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.

John Botti, president, Disaster Restoration Services of Greater Pittsburgh

In the mid-1970s, Bill Botti and Ron Dececco saw the need for a contracting company that could repair homes and businesses after a fire, flood, accident or other catastrophic event. At first, they began working as a franchise of a nationally known company, but a few years later, Botti created an independent company now known as Disaster Restoration Services, or DRS, of Greater Pittsburgh.

Botti’s brother, John Botti, joined the family business in 1976 while still attending college, and has been with DRS ever since. Although the company still specializes in the restoration of homes and businesses after disasters, it has branched out into renovations and new construction—and one of its most common partners in those projects is Mon Valley Initiative.

“I grew up in Turtle Creek, born and bred,” Botti says, “so I’m very familiar with the work ethic of the Mon Valley. There’s a lot of pride in the Mon Valley, and what I particularly enjoy about working on MVI’s projects is that we’re taking old structures and giving them new life. Families are getting homes that include new technology, new kitchens, new insulation, and in many cases, these are homes that they wouldn’t be able to afford without the assistance that Mon Valley Initiative offers.”

Large projects recently completed by DRS of Greater Pittsburgh include several for Mon Valley Initiative—such as the transformation of Swissvale’s old Deniston School into the Schoolhouse Condominiums—as well as $3 million in emergency repairs to Clairton Education Center following a water-line break.

“We are so thankful to have (Botti) as a partner in our work,” said Laura R. Zinski, chief executive officer of MVI. “While we don’t normally give an award like this to a paid vendor, John and his crew did the extraordinary over the last 24 months. We had a number of homes that people wanted and needed to be in, and the COVID shutdowns created a number of delays. John was such a steady force—he never gave up.”

Employer Partner of the Year

Given to an employer that has made a commitment to working in coordination with Mon Valley Initiative to help individuals find meaningful work and achieve financial stability and independence.

Aerotek Inc.

Since 1983, Aerotek Inc. has distinguished itself as a leader in recruiting and staffing services by having a deep understanding of the intersection of talent and business. Headquartered in Hanover, Md., Aerotek operates a network of more than 230 offices, including two locations serving Pittsburgh, in Robinson and Wilkins townships.

As a strategic partner to more than 17,000 clients and 300,000 contract employees every year, Aerotek says its people-focused approach gives it a competitive advantage for clients, and rewarding careers for its contract employees. The company recently unveiled a new tagline, “Our People are Everything,” to emphasize that Aerotek’s goal is to connect the best talent with the best job opportunities. “What sets Aerotek apart is our overwhelming focus on our clients and contract employees—our dedication to providing them with the highest level of customer service,” says Aerotek President Todd Mohr, who adds the company has an “operational commitment to delivering on the needs and wants of our customers.”

Kevin Talley Jr., an Aerotek recruiter, came to MVI’s Workforce Development & Financial Coaching team for help filling production and manufacturing roles at a variety of businesses in the Mon Valley and Pittsburgh’s east suburbs. He encourages other employers who are looking to fill vacancies to reach out to MVI.

Many of the clients helped by MVI’s employment and financial coaches are returning to the workforce following personal, professional or legal challenges. Talley, who recently left Aerotek to take a new job with a large healthcare non-profit, says anyone who’s struggled in the past shouldn’t be shy about saying so. “Be honest. Let the person you’re working with know what’s going on. No matter what your background is, no matter where you are in your life, trust the people at MVI. They want to help.”

Regional Partnership Award

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

Peoples, an Essential Utilities company

One of the world’s first gas wells was drilled by Michael and Obe Haymaker in Murrysville in 1878 and was soon producing 30 million cubic feet of natural gas per day. George Westinghouse was so excited about the potential of natural gas as a cleaner-burning alternative to coal that he drilled a well in the backyard of his home in Point Breeze.

Peoples traces its history directly to the Haymakers, Westinghouse and other pioneers. The 136-year-old company is now the largest natural gas provider in Pennsylvania, serving 740,000 customers in three states. In 2020, the company became part of Bryn Mawr, Pa.-based Essential Utilities Inc., which also provides water and wastewater treatment in 10 states.

“Peoples’ roots run very deep in the Pittsburgh area, and beyond,” says Bill Roland, the company’s director of government affairs. “We have a social-service aspect to the company that’s incredibly important … We always want to try to leave things better than we found them.” That includes paying employees while they volunteer their time working for charitable organizations such as Habitat for Humanity, food banks and environmental and educational programs. Peoples’ employees have volunteered to help clean up rivers and streams, read to children, install fire alarms and support veterans’ organizations. Peoples also makes direct contributions to needy organizations throughout its service area—approximately $4.4 million in 2020.

Roland, a native of North Braddock, calls the Mon Valley “incredibly important” to Peoples. “We’ve seen places like East Liberty and Lawrenceville that have really taken off, and we have a sense that’s coming for the Mon Valley. And what makes it possible are the people who live there, who have dedicated their lives to the Mon Valley. We really have a sense that a great future is just around the corner.”

Community Partner Awards

Ollie Hill
Nominated by Downtown West Newton Inc.

Ollie Hill graduated from West Newton High School in 1963, was drafted into the Army and stationed in Germany from 1965 to 1967. Afterwards, he moved to Washington, D.C. where he lived for 46 years. Following his retirement in 2017, he returned to West Newton—where the Hill family first settled in 1897—and immediately began getting involved in local volunteer opportunities beginning with the West Newton Public Library. He also volunteers with the West Newton Lions Club and the Westmoreland Yough Trail Chapter of the Great Allegheny Passage, where he helps cut grass along the hiking-biking trail. Hill also plays a role in organizing the West Newton Community Festival.

“My dad was a volunteer, and so when I moved back, I followed suit,” Hill says. “It pleases me to help other people … Being from a small town, it was hard getting used to being in a big city. West Newton is a small town. You know everybody, and everybody knows you. It’s not like a big city, where you don’t know your neighbors.”

Barbara LaFace of DWNI says there was “not even a moment’s thought” when someone suggested honoring Hill. “I know how valuable he is to the Lions Club, as well as all of the heavy work he does for us,” she says. Volunteers like Ollie Hill are vital in a community such as West Newton, LaFace says. “If it wasn’t for volunteers, a lot of the organizations here wouldn’t exist. They are the ones who keep this town running.”

Swissvale Shade Tree Advisory Committee
Nominated by Swissvale Economic Development Corp.

The Swissvale Shade Tree Advisory Committee (SSTAC) was formed by Swissvale Borough Council in 2015, with the initial purpose of preparing a borough ordinance for trees both along public streets and in parks. The board, comprised of volunteers, serves as a clearing house for resolution of issues with the tree canopy in Swissvale, in partnership with the Department of Public Works. After initially teaming with Nine Mile Run Watershed Association, the SSTAC has since independently applied for and received four TreeVitalize grants. The last two grants supported the revitalization of the streetscape in Swissvale’s business district.

Partnering with Swissvale’s public works department, who dug the street tree pits and replaced the soil for planting, the shade tree committee was able to plant 22 trees at no cost to the borough, completing the final phase of the streetscape project. With this planting, the SSTAC has been responsible for the addition of more than 100 trees in Swissvale.

The SSTAC worked with other organizations to develop an inventory of street and park trees in Swissvale. The inventory was then uploaded to a public website called OpenTreeMap. The SSTAC works to locate trees in areas that will avoid creating conflicts with traffic, pedestrians and utility lines. Five years ago, Swissvale was named a Tree City USA and the designation has given the borough and the shade-tree committee a reason to celebrate every Arbor Day.

In addition to weeding, mulching and pruning the borough’s street trees during the spring and fall, the committee works to educate the public on the importance of trees. One facet of this education has been tagging each of the trees with its common name, its Latin name and its planting date.

Dale Kraeer
Nominated by Turtle Creek Development Corp.

Born and raised in Turtle Creek, Dale Kraeer has watched the borough change since his childhood. “Growing up, everyone either worked in the Westinghouse or United States Steel. When they started shutting down, things got rough. People moved away to find other jobs, houses were being sold, houses were being rented out.”

These days, Kraeer says, most Turtle Creek residents have to travel out of town to their jobs. He was one of the borough residents who didn’t have to leave the municipality to go to get to work—because for 30 years, Kraeer was a Turtle Creek police officer. He served as police chief for the past 25 years, until his recent retirement. “Being a police officer is almost a calling,” he says. “You’ve got to want to do the job. It’s a cliched thing to say, but you have to want to help people, you have to want to help the community. As the chief, you want to make sure your officers are OK—and that the community is OK.”

Volunteers, such as those in the Turtle Creek Development Corp., have an important role in maintaining a good relationship between police and the community they serve, Kraeer says. “They’ve done wonders for the borough,” he says. “They would let us know sometimes what projects they wanted to do. They also would ask us, ‘What are some projects we should attempt?’ And we would try to keep an eye on whatever they asked us to keep an eye on.”

One thing in Turtle Creek that hasn’t changed over the past 30 years, Kraeer says, are the kind of people who live there. “People are dedicated,” he says. “They have roots here. They’ve done projects like the community garden, the Home Plate garden, renovations to homes, demolition of vacant homes—programs that help people. As a police officer, that’s the kind of people you want to have in your community, and there are plenty of people like that in Turtle Creek.”

Bethlehem Baptist Church, McKeesport
Nominated from the community

For 132 years, Bethlehem Baptist Church has been what it calls a “no judgment zone,” helping tend to both the spiritual and physical needs of the community—including people who don’t worship there. Founded in McKeesport’s Christy Park neighborhood, the church has been located since the late 1970s at a prominent intersection near the downtown business district.

“We are a lighthouse on the corner to help people find their way, in any way that we can,” says the Rev. Earlene Coleman, senior pastor and a lifelong member of the church. “The pastor that I grew up under, the Rev. Harold Hayes, did much for the community. That’s been the foundation and the base of Bethlehem—to not only minister inside the walls, but also to reach out to the community and see who else we can help.”

Outreach by Bethlehem Baptist Church has included providing day care for young mothers, family and individual counseling, smoking cessation classes, and free health clinics, done in cooperation with doctors and nurses from UPMC. In fact, public health has become a major focus of the church’s ministry. “It’s a need in the community,” Coleman says. “There are so many people in the community who are not going to the doctor like they should, and use the emergency room instead of having regular doctor’s visits.”

In the spring of 2021, the church stepped forward to serve as a distribution point for the COVID-19 vaccine, and hosted a visit by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf to talk about the need for vaccinations and their effectiveness. Over 1,300 people received their COVID-19 vaccinations at the church, Coleman says. For the past 14 years, Bethlehem Baptist Church has partnered with the Human Services Center Corp.’s McKeesport Collaborative to serve as the starting and ending point for the Mon Valley HIV/AIDS Walk—the only HIV-awareness walk in the Pittsburgh area. “That partnership has been very important,” Coleman says. “The desire was for people to not see someone with HIV/AIDS as a person to be ostracized.”

The church also is spearheading the creation of Noah’s Ark Community Center, a combination social hall, banquet facility and performance space being developed in a nearby former furniture store.

“People do not live inside this building,” Coleman says. “If life is tough and life is rough, and you’re suffering from anxiety and depression, coming in on Sunday morning and hearing me preach the Word is not going to change where you’re living. We’re not just looking for you to bring a tithe and an offering. We’re looking for you to come in so that we can unite together.”

Clairton Family Center
Nominated from the community

The Clairton Family Center is the heart of the Clairton community and has been a critical partner in countless community programs and events with the Clairton Cares Initiative.

“The Family Center has become kind of like a hub,” says Jawanna Warren, site director. “If you want to find something—or find something out—you can find it at the Family Center, because there are not a lot of other agencies serving the community.”

A program of the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, the Clairton Family Center focuses on families with small children—from infancy to age 5—and helps identify resources that will help them prepare for pre-school, kindergarten and elementary school. It also helps parents of children with special learning needs and developmental delays. Located in a portion of the former Miller Avenue School, the Clairton Family Center also partners with other agencies, including Duquesne University’s Bridges to Health, the Salvation Army and Head Start to provide a one-stop location for a variety of human services.

“There are a lot of needs in the community,” Warren says. “Food, transportation, help with utility bills. We have about 40 to 50 families who are being intensively helped, but people come here to use our computers, use the phones and connect with resources, and we help as much as we can. Anyone who comes through the door gets help.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Clairton Family Center staff and volunteers pulled together to provide a diaper bank, a food distribution network, an overdose awareness event, and even community birthday parties, organized in conjunction with Beverly’s Birthdays, a non-profit based in North Huntingdon Township.

Additionally, the Clairton Family Center partnered with Mon Valley Initiative to implement a basic-needs assistance program to help families who lost their jobs or suffered other hardships due to the pandemic.

For Warren, her work at the Family Center is deeply personal. A native of Clairton, Warren says she was “in a bad spot” when she had her own children more than three decades ago. A social worker from the Clairton Family Center wouldn’t give up on her. “She was so persistent,” Warren says. “She kept coming and coming and coming. Sometimes I would answer the door, sometimes I wouldn’t. But she never stopped coming.”

In December, Warren will celebrate her 30th year of employment at Clairton Family Center. When people who come to the center get discouraged, she tells them not to give up: “I always tell them, ‘I am a family of the family center.’”

Wilmerding Community Center
Nominated from the community

The Wilmerding Community Center is a new organization, but it traces its roots to the Turtle Creek valley’s most important benefactor, George Westinghouse. The industrial pioneer helped found a branch of the Young Men’s Christian Association in Wilmerding in the 1890s to provide recreational and cultural activities for the community.

In the 1950s, the Wilmerding YMCA became affiliated with the YMCA of Greater Pittsburgh. A new facility was built on borough-owned land in the 1980s and featured a warm-water swimming pool, an indoor walking track, aerobics studio and gymnasium, and drew members from throughout the Mon Valley. But in 2018, when the Greater Pittsburgh YMCA filed for bankruptcy, it announced that the Wilmerding facility would be one of several locations slated for closure.

Community leaders, concerned citizens and former YMCA members created a new tax-exempt organization to re-open the facility and restart its programs. With the help of corporate donations, foundation support and state funding, the Wilmerding Community Center opened to the public in 2019—one year after the YMCA closed. Today, in addition to the swimming pool and fitness center, the Wilmerding Community Center offers CPR and first-aid classes, youth development programs, “lunch and learn” seminars and programs for senior citizens.

Dues from members and donations from the community support the ongoing operation of the facility. Volunteers also help staff the desk and perform other duties. Today, members come from East Pittsburgh, Irwin, McKeesport, North Versailles, Penn Hills, Plum, Trafford and as far away as Scottdale. “This building brings people together for a variety of reasons,” says Gary Nowading, one of the center’s volunteers. “It’s just amazing the number of people who come from different communities. It’s not all socialization or physical education. We run programs and classes by outside organizations for everyone from kids to seniors to help them live their lives better.”

During the COVID-19 lockdown, the Wilmerding Community Center partnered with the East Allegheny School District to create an after-school study hub for students in kindergarten through sixth grade, where an on-site facilitator helped pupils complete their classroom lessons. The program served an average of 25 kids a week. “When COVID hit, one of our main concerns was for the seniors,” Nowading says. “We thought it was going to be hard on the seniors. When the lockdown ended, the seniors were the first ones to come back. It’s part of the routine that starts their day. They come down, they socialize, they swim, they exercise.”

Mon Valley Initiative